Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cutting Back on Solitary Confinement

I believe the sort of extreme solitary confinement used in American prisons is the definition of "cruel and unusual punishment." Consider conditions in Unit 32 of the state prison in Parchman, Mississippi, where the only item allowed in the cells was the concrete pad prisoners used as a bed:
Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge had already ruled unacceptable.
But as fear of crime fades (finally!), the policy of prison as an angry retribution for the nation's woes is gradually being rolled back. After violence broke out in Unit 32, the state actually loosened the rules, allowing more time out of the cells and more recreation like basketball and reading:
In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000. So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.
Similar moved are being made in other states, partly for budgetary reasons -- "supermax" prisons cost about three times as much to run as ordinary high-security facilities -- and partly because more people are realizing that such crushing isolation is horribly inhumane. Credit for this goes to both left-wing activists like the ACLU and evangelical religious leaders, for whom prison ministries have become a major cause.
Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in Unit 32, which one former inmate described as “hell, an insane asylum.” Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible. “That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said. By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes. “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” he now says. 
We did these evil thing to other Americans because fear of the rising rate of violent crime unhinged us. Politics played a part, as "get tough on crime" became a right-wing rallying crime and centrists went along, but the root cause was fear. I feel optimistic that unless crime surges again, this humanization will continue, and we will gradually phase out mind-destroying supermax prisons.

A bigger problem, and one that I would like to see Democrats make a major push on, is repealing all of those draconian sentencing laws that took away all discretion from judges and made criminals wards of the state for absurdly long times.

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