The case against solitary confinement

For many years, the criminal justice system in this country has been left in the background, ignored like the cobweb-covered door leading to the basement of society. But 2016 brought a wave of awareness to dire issues that have been negatively and unnecessarily affecting prisoners, and by proxy, our society, for decades. 

It is now well known, for example, that America incarcerates more of its people than any other nation on earth. With 2.2 million prisoners, and an incarceration rate, according to the 2016 World Prison Population List published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), of 698 per 100,000 citizens -- 1 in 143 of us -- we house more criminals per capita than countries like China, Russia, and literally every other country that we as Americans might otherwise assume would be more imprisonment happy. Even Pakistan's incarceration rate is 16 times less than ours, where only 1 in 2,325 of their citizens are jailed.


This year we learned that solitary confinement — keeping prisoners in their cells for 22 hours or more per day for long durations — is a harmful practice, and one that is widely overused in this country. As the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) reiterated in their just-released comprehensive report on this practice, "prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States," revealing that some states are housing 1 out of every 7 prisoners in isolation, often for years on end, to great detriment.

While the cost on taxpayers is astronomical -- as much as $90,000 annually per isolation cell -- the real expense, brought about by the psychological deficit of those housed there, is much higher. 

As several reports revealed this year, the mental well-being of prisoners deprived of normal human contact for long periods of time often deteriorates to a point of them not being able to reintegrate back into society. This means that the rest of us pay, either for costs like treatment and disability payments, or, and more likely, in covering the eventual costs of their re-incarceration.

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.", stated President Obama in a January 2016 Washington Post article, 'Why We Must Rethink Solitary Confinement.’

Mental health of those behind bars was regarded this year as a "crisis of the criminal justice system." An expose released by USA Today earlier this year, revealed that a 2006 Surgeon General's report on the then growing problem of mental health conditions in prison was buried in a closet of the G.W. Bush administration. It was done so, according to the article, in an effort to 'avoid spending the money to repair the problem that such a vital report made public' would necessitate.

Ten years later, reports -- released within the last months of 2016 -- show the results of avoidance back then. The ASCA report, Aiming to Reduce Time-in-Cell, published direct responses from nearly all of the nation’s state prison directors as to the number of prisoners "identified as having a serious mental health issue" behind their walls -- the sort of condition that makes re-entry back into society difficult.

Several states revealed "serious" mental health conditions in more than half of their population -- a number validated by previous reports from the Department of Justice. Utah, for instance, cited that 69.8 percent of their female population fit this category.

Historic actions taken by the Obama administration in 2016 put an exclamation point on the problems within our criminal justice system. This year the Department of Justice announced the phase-out of the failed experiment of private prisons from the federal level -- a system that was proven to cost more and was less safe and secure.

At the same time, President Obama announced a record-setting amount of sentence commutations -- 1,023 prisoners during his administration -- more commutations than the last 10 presidents combined. 

This administration took notice of the outdated sentencing practices of the tough-on-crime era, and did something about it. Now several states are currently reviewing their own sentencing policies to reduce the number of prisoners held unnecessarily.

Criminal justice is a necessary in every society. But it's one that must be carefully implemented and managed if there is to be any hope for the successful rehabilitated return of those who have violated that society.

The past twelve months have spotlighted America's criminal justice policy failures over the years leading up to now. If 'knowledge itself is power,' as Francis Bacon coined, then this year gave us the ability to begin making the necessary changes that are badly needed. 

Many prison systems appear to be poised to finally begin doing just that. Let's just hope that this past year's knowledge has provided us with enough juice to power through the next presidential administration so that real reform can have a chance.

Bianca Clark is the executive director of Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life. Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.

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