So entitled is an editorial in last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun concerning correctional systems’ routine use of solitary confinement.
Officially, the state of Maryland does not hold any of the 22,000 inmates in its prison system in what is called ‘solitary confinement,’ a cruel form of extreme punishment that isolates certain prisoners from any contact with other human beings, sometimes for months, years or even decades at a time. In fact, the term ‘solitary confinement’ doesn’t even appear in the state regulations governing prisoner treatment, nor is it anywhere mentioned in guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Justice for the federal Bureau of Prisons.
As the Sun points out, no matter what you call it or how you try to distinguish it, over reliance on “the hole” (a.k.a., Segregated Housing Unit (SHU)) is problematic.
Rather than call it solitary confinement, however, the abuses are cloaked behind such bureaucratic euphemisms as ‘administrative segregation,’ ‘disciplinary segregation’ and ‘protective custody.’ For the inmates subjected to such abusive confinement, the terms amount to little more than torture by another name.[…]
[The department claims] that most inmates confined to administrative or disciplinary segregation are not held in isolation but share a cell with another inmate on the prison’s segregated wing, where they can participate in activities such as meals, exercise and bathing alongside other prisoners on that tier.
But psychologists have found the negative impact of being housed with an anti-social or violent cellmate in the segregated wing can be at least as devastating to an inmate’s mental well being as isolation in solitary confinement, with a concomitant rise in the risk of inmate-on-inmate violence. In both cases conditions are such that healthy prisoners are more likely to develop a mental illness, while those already suffering mental problems are likely to get worse.
Those familiar with the Bureau of Prisons are aware of the widespread use of SHU consistent with how the Sun describes the Maryland Department of Corrections’ practices. It’s where prisoners commonly languish while in transit and often even after arriving at their designated institutions, waiting for bed space to open. Accused of an institutional rule violation and subject to investigation? Off to the SHU, frequently for weeks on end with no credit for the placement if found in violation and sentenced to ‘disciplinary segregation.’ The subject of a threat of harm through no fault of your own? Off to the SHU while you await a safety assessment investigation and, possibly, transfer to another institution, which means more time in different SHUs.
Notably, the Sun piece comes on the heels of a Congressional hearinglast month at which Sen. Richard Durbin (D.-Il.) confronted the BOP’s Director on the question of SHU use and its impact:
But the hearing also included a testy exchange between Mr. Durbin and Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who defended the use of solitary confinement for inmates who pose a threat to the safety of staff members or other inmates.
‘Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?’ Mr. Durbin asked, pointing to a life-size replica of a solitary confinement cell that had been set up in the hearing room. [Click the linked article above to see a photo of the replica.]
‘Our objective is always to have the individual to freely be in the general population,’ Mr. Samuels responded.
‘I’m trying to zero in on a specific question,’ Mr. Durbin said, adding, ‘Do you believe, based on your life experience in this business, that that is going to have a negative impact on an individual?’
‘I would say I don’t believe it is the preferred option,’ Mr. Samuels conceded, ‘and that there would be some concerns with prolonged confinement.’
Mr. Samuels said that of the 218,000 prisoners the bureau is responsible for, only 7 percent are kept in isolation cells.
In other words, “only” 15,260 federal inmates are kept in isolation cells, a number roughly 70 percent of the entire Maryland Department of Corrections population. The Sun underscores why this should be of tremendous concern to all of society:
Prisoners generally are not people whose rights are foremost in the public mind. Politicians ignore them because they can’t vote, and no public official running for re-election wants to be branded as soft on crime for sympathizing with their plight. But Maryland can’t afford to just lock them up and throw away the key, if for no other reason that eventually most of them will be released back into the community and bring the problems they had in prison with them.