Originally Published on Forbes.com
Solitary confinement houses the worst of the worst, the most dangerous of the criminal element in our country. The image is of an angry, spitting, will-hurt-you-if-you-dare-come-close monster of a man who deserves to be locked away for nearly every hour of every day.
According to a November 2016 report from the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), there are currently around 70,000 such "monsters" living in forced seclusion inside our nation's prisons. Their study polled 48 jurisdictions within the U.S., accounting for roughly 96% of this countries prisoners, providing the only current, comprehensive look inside the world of solitary confinement.
"Our highest priority is to operate institutions that are safe for staff and inmates and to keep communities to which prisoners will return safe," stated Leann K. Bertch, President of ASCA, echoing what most prison administrators express as their reason for using the most extreme version of isolation in this country.
Hearing that conjures images of the horrible miscreants that must be housed within. But come to find out, many living in these scenes are not exactly what we might expect.
Most prison systems use solitary confinement as a first line of punishment, a sort of extreme time-out to discourage future infractions.
"Today, an incarcerated person can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not just for violent acts," reveals Solitary Watch, a nonprofit that tracks the use of solitary confinement in the U.S., "but also for non-violent offenses like possessing contraband, ignoring orders, or using profanity."
"I just spent two weeks in the hole," admitted one Oregon inmate, "locked down for 23-plus hours a day with a blanket and a book because I violated a prison rule by helping a neighbor compose a legal brief." He has never committed a violent act during his decade-long prison stay.
Prison systems often use solitary confinement to house well-behaved inmates claiming there is a potential threat to prison security. Called Administrative Segregation, authorities use this as a better-safe-than-sorry option that often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy by spawning contemptuous residents.
In 2015, the prison authority in California was taken to court over their practice of housing known gang members in isolation for years on end for no better reason than 'just in case'. It resulted in a victory for those housed there and recent reforms to prohibit the practice.
The heinous use of solitary confinement has become so bad that the federal government and several state legislatures have stepped in to develop statutes in an effort to at least protect the more vulnerable amongst the prison society. For example, in October of 2016, New Jersey proposed a bill preventing the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women, those under 21 or over 65, and those with a mental illness, a developmental disability or other serious impairment.
Solitary confinement has especially become a revolving door epidemic for those with mental illness. The ASCA polling showed that high percentages of prisoners in restrictive housing are classified as having "serious mental health issues." In Louisiana, for instance, 38.7% of those housed in solitary confinement there fall under this category.
Any inmate placed under the harsh conditions of segregation will experience intense mental and physical distress. But for inmates that already have a mental health condition, stresses the AVID Prison Project, a disability rights organization, "these conditions can have a catastrophic impact." Their 2016 report, Locked Up & Locked Down: Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness, reveals how mentally ill prisoners, unable to cope with the circumstances, often end up with further violations, frequently against staff, appearing to be the 'angry, spitting monsters' we might imagine. The reason for this is less a product of these inmates being a violent sort than it is due to the lack of training of the unit's staff to best deal with mentally ill prisoners. Many go in with a minor infraction only to come out more broken than ever.
From an outside perspective, solitary confinement is necessary to control the prison scene. But if you look a little closer, you find an environment that unnecessarily produces the ill-effects, including the violence we imagine.
What we breed in prison effects all of us upon offender's reentry back into society. There's a reason why human rights groups all over the world condemn America's overuse of this punishment and are calling for an end to the practice of solitary confinement.
Alternatives exist, but it will likely require a learning curve before sweeping reforms can occur in this country. To demonstrate the challenge, New Jersey's Governor Christie vetoed the aforementioned solitary confinement bill.
For now, monsters will continue to be made.