Prolonged solitary confinement

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On Bridge Street, Amnesty International Group 463 recently joined supporters of the National Religious Campaign against Torture to engage passers-by in conversations about the use of prolonged solitary confinement.  Thus far, they have collected nearly 150 signatures on the Coalition’s nationwide petition to end its widespread use.

Prolonged solitary confinement is widely recognized as torture.  Estimates are that 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in the United States, making the U.S. the world’s leader in this form of incarceration. Inmates may be held for months in cells which can be 12-by-7 feet, for 23 hours per day, with absolutely no human contact. These are not prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or Bagram. They are prisoners in facilities on U.S. soil.

The use of such forms of detention grew in the 1980s and ‘90s to accede to demands for tougher punishments.  Often known as “super-max” facilities, units were constructed to accommodate prisoners in total isolation. At first planned to house the “worst of the worst,” inmates thought to endanger others, but, as time passed, prisoners who infuriate prison staff by being uncooperative and especially those who are mentally ill, are being placed in these units. Violence in them has increased greatly and suicides have become ever more common.

Many in faith communities and human rights groups recognize that housing prisoners in this way is immoral and appears to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans cruel and inhuman treatment.

They are calling for an end to the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Now prison officials, who initially thought isolation units were an essential means of controlling prisoners in overcrowded prisons, are calling for an end to such confinement.  The lead was taken in Mississippi in 2007 when the practice was ended in 2007 in Parchment Prison. Violence and suicide attempts were greatly reduced.

Some states are currently rethinking the use of “super-max” units on economic grounds. They are at least three times as expensive as regular prisons.

It may prove that, those primarily concerned about economics and those working for human rights, are on the same page, calling for the end of the use of prolonged solitary confinement. The practice is inhumane, extremely harmful to mental well-being of prisoners, expensive, and it fails to make anyone any safer.

Carrol Pearson
Amnesty International Group 463