At noon Tuesday, we will break our fast immediately after the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights is, like a growing number of states across the nation, reassessing this harmful, costly, and ineffective practice. As people of faith, we are grateful.
Although the particular conditions in “segregation” vary depending on the facility, individuals are typically locked down 23 or 24 hours a day in small cells with no natural light and no meaningful contact with staff or other prisoners. Inmates may be allowed an hour of “recreation” (alone) in a caged pen. We confine people in these isolated conditions for weeks, years, even decades on end. Research consistently demonstrates that the psychological effects, particularly among children and the mentally ill, are devastating. Even those who enter solitary confinement without pre-existing mental illness have shown symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness, and heart palpitations. Some experience hallucinations, perceptual distortions, and suicidal ideation.
From 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40% compared to 28%. Prolonged solitary confinement has become a default management tool, not only as a response to violent behavior, but exceedingly as routine practice for minor rule infractions, involuntary protection, and as a means of managing difficult inmates, particularly those with mental illness.
Supporting responsible limits to solitary confinement is not about whether individuals convicted of certain crimes deserve to be sent to prison. Rather, it’s about opposing treatment that is so severe that it violates our values as a nation, as people of faith, and as fellow human beings.
Limiting solitary confinement is not only right, it is smart. The demonstrated success of several states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement by using evidence-based classification systems has proven that not only are there safe alternatives, but there are more cost-effective options.
For example, Mississippi drastically reduced its use of solitary confinement by 85% in one super-max unit. The result? The overall rate of both prisoner-on-staff and prisoner-on-prisoner violence plummeted; Mississippi eventually closed the facility all together. Maine and Colorado also have recently made notable reductions in the use of solitary confinement without jeopardizing prison safety. Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte explained, “Over time, the more data we’re pulling is showing that what we’re doing now [through greatly reducing the use of solitary confinement] is safer than what we were doing before.”
With nearly all 50 states and the federal government facing budget deficits, we must be good stewards of our limited criminal justice tax dollars. However, solitary confinement is actually the most expensive form of incarceration, costing up to three times much as general prison population housing. Indeed, Mississippi has reportedly saved $5 million by closing its super-max unit, and Colorado will save $4.5 million as a result of its pending supermax closure.
Our nation should not neglect the safety costs our communities pay as a result of solitary confinement. In explaining his reasoning for reducing Colorado’s reliance on solitary confinement, Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Clements pointed out that 47% of those held in solitary confinement are eventually released directly to the community. This lack of transition, which is not unique to Colorado, is alarming, considering prisoners who are freed directly from solitary confinement cells are significantly more likely to commit crimes again.
We urge people of faith to lead the way in calling for a reversal of our reliance on solitary confinement. Congress and all state legislatures need to not only reassess solitary confinement, but take action to end the pervasive use of this inhumane and ineffective practice.
Rev. Richard Killmer is executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interfaith organization leading state legislative campaigns to limit solitary confinement across the nation. Pat Nolan, who will testify at the June 19th Congressional hearing, is the former Republican leader of the California State Assembly from 1984 to 1988 and current vice president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, which also works on justice reform.