The U.S. Finally Rethinking Solitary Confinement

solitary confinementAnthony Graves spent 18 years on death row in Texas, all in solitary confinement. He was the fifth and last witness to speak at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement Tuesday morning.

Mr. Graves spoke eloquently and powerfully to a packed room and an overflow audience about his experience, the deplorable conditions, and the lasting psychological effects he cannot escape. He was exonerated and released from prison around two years ago, but still carries the scars. He spoke of watching completely sane individuals come to death row, and within three years lose their grip on reality. He described what it was like to live in a very, very small box 23 hours a day, forced to sit like a trained dog when guards delivered food.

One argument against the death penalty is the danger of executing the innocent. It’s a strong argument – Mr. Grave’s case highlights this – but no one should have to live in the conditions he described.

Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system the criminal.

- Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in solitary confinement before being exonerated.

As Amnesty International has pointed out in recent reports on Arizona and Louisiana, prolonged solitary confinement may amount to torture. The general consensus of Mr. Graves and all but one of the other witnesses at the hearing was that solitary confinement, if used at all, should be done so with more care and that better oversight is needed.

The one witness in disagreement was the first witness to testify – Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In his statement he stressed the need for solitary to ensure security in prisons, and to protect the safety for those who work there. But at the forefront of the minds of Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) – chair of the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights who presided over the hearing – Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Al Franken (D-MN) was how solitary confinement affects the mental health or prisoners.

Mr. Samuels argued that only around 3% of prisoners suffer from mental health issues. However, Bureau of Justice statistics suggest that as many as 16% of adult inmates suffer from some type of mental illness, and that the number continues to grow.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement is one of the worst possible things that could be done. Mr. Samuels assured the Senators that mental health evaluations are conducted, that extensive procedures are in place to ensure that the wrong people don’t end up in solitary, and that the cases are constantly reviewed.

But Pat Nolan, a former member of the California State Assembly and the current President of Justice Fellowship, painted a different picture. Having  visited super max prisons, he said there is little to no oversight or review process relating to solitary, and often the ones who get put there are not the most dangerous or the “worst of the worst”.

Professor Craig Haney, a researcher and expert on prison life (who was involved in the Stanford Prison Experiment), and Stuart M. Andrews Jr., a South Carolina lawyer engaged in litigation over a lack of mental health care for inmates, were more in agreement with Mr. Nolan. They disputed Mr. Samuels vision of a prison system in which inmates are not subject to deplorable conditions, are treated fairly, offered programming and treatment, and their mental health is closely monitored.

The United States has the world’s largest prison population, and has increased its use of solitary confinement since the late 1970s. As this hearing reveled, this has had serious “human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences.”  Even if prison is sometimes necessary, surely we can keep society safe without degrading the mental health of our prisoners, and without killing them.

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6 thoughts on “The U.S. Finally Rethinking Solitary Confinement

  1. I really don't have the answers, but what I do find is that the victim or victims seem to get forgotten about. Weather they were tortured,raped, or murdered, they and their families are affected and sometimes ruined forever. As I said I'm not sure where I stand, but I'd far rather fight for the victim then the perpetrator who seems to get all the focus and attention.
    Let's not kid ourselves people, these prisoners on "Death Row" are there for horrific crimes.

    • Not everyone on death row has committed a crime and not everyone in prison is a criminal. Can you see out of the box and realize that some victims falsely accuse others because officers force or threaten them? This happens in the real world. "An unjust law is no law at all."

      What do you think of NYC officers raping women in need of assistance and protection? How do you view an officer who attempts to arrest children as young as a 6 month old? Do you praise those officers who invade homes without a warrant and while the person is not home? Is this morally ethical and normal for some?

      We must remember that victims are sometimes victims twice. I am a prime experience that my rights were violated and I was innocent. I had no fault and neither did my husband. However, he is serving a 12 to life sentence on a false accusation. The judicial and law system is corrupt and we hear about it every single day in the news.

      I respect your opinion, but I don't share the philosophy only because I feel that does not express a sympathetic view or demonstrates empathy. It is being discussed in the U.S. that solitary confinement is proving to do the opposite of ending violence. If we do not rehabilitate those minds who are severely and traumatically damaged, then we will be facing a world as real as Gotham City. Criminals will be on the loose to do as they please with whomever they please. Those inmates were not born criminals, but the life they live gears them toward that life. Rejection is one of those factors as well as maltreatment and neglect. Who created this world…our most wonderful government. Checks and balances were supposed to stabilize this nation.

      Nonetheless, the balance is always richer on one side than the other. The justice scale is extremely unbalanced and it is time the government accepts responsibility. This should be considered. No-one knows what another endures until it occurs to them, perhaps the view will change.

      • Hi Mrs Jimenez,
        thank you for this letter. I am very sorry this happened to you. It must be very frustrating to experience such injustice.
        I just experienced a workshop in the prison and all prejudice and fear fell from me.
        I am especially concerned with the use of Solitary Confinement. It is inhuman and makes people agressive rather then heals them from their "bad" behavior. The Quakers had something good in mind- but it is totally misused by the prisons. No human contact for weeks, months and even years is just not right and human. How can we change that? Is it possible that Amnasty International talks to the government? The Quakers had the power to bring it into the prison. Could they also change it again? How can inhuman inforcements be changed?

  2. Off topic, but I need to vent.

    I am so disappointed that Amnesty International (USA), a human justice organization that I have long admired, puts the goal of sustaining itself through fundraising and currying favor with the American government above its core mission. Your decision to hire Suzanne Nossel as director is a betrayal of the what (at least I thought) was truly an independent NGO.

    It reminds me when the ACLU started arguing that money was the equivalent of speech so it could increase its fundraising from the top 1%.

    Who can I trust now to do the right thing for the right motivations?

    So sorry.

  3. Where is justice and righteousness? Shall we commit these people to suffering cruel practices of punishment for prolonged periods? Is it not enough that these men are destined to die and know the date of their death? Some have been found innocent through evidence and are still executed. Identification has been thwarted. I agree that if the person committed the crime, then time should be given. However, I do not agree of the abuse that is imposed for years without end.

    If your sixteen year old was confined to this type of abuse for years without end would you so easily post these comments or would you be the first to contact the innocence project to plead for clemency? Ethical morals and standards seem to fall by the way side and are being erased. We are growing and approaching and era of dictatorship and utter cruelty by those who are in eminence.

    How sad?

  4. I don't think inmates should have a comfortable life but this is too much. They are scared for life after such an experience so it's just like giving them a life sentence.