Taking Action to End Solitary Confinement


When we look back in a few years, will this be the summer that the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. began to fade?

There's no official count of prisoners in solitary confinement at any given time, but it is widely believed to be well above 25,000. Three weeks of hunger strikes by California prisoners last month brought the issue to international attention?and the strong public response made it clear, that as a society we might be ready to move away from this cruel and ineffective punishment.

So-called administrative segregation is vastly overused in state and federal prisons across the country. Prisoners in solitary are routinely locked in tiny cell for 23 hours a day, 365 days a year. Their hour of “exercise” is often in a tiny cage with a glimpse of sky.

For years, prisoners in solitary may only come in contact with guards.

Rather than reserving this drastic punishment for a few extremely violent individuals, it is used on the mentally ill, on suspected gang members and on prisoners accused of breaking minor infractions. Children in adult prisons are sometimes placed in solitary, supposedly for their own protection.

And most states don't have clear restrictions or reviews of long-term stays in solitary, which is when this punishment becomes truly dangerous. In a widely cited 2009 New Yorker article, Atul Gawande provides proof of the physiological impact of long-term solitary confinement and makes a strong case that this punishment is, in fact, torture.

Now, however, there are a few signs of hope.

The California hunger strikes led to small, but important, concessions from state officials, including a public hearing on the issue last week. The protests also sparked a wave of editorials and op-eds from mainstream newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

And as Lance Tapley reported in The Crime Report in July, some unlikely leadership on the issue has come from Maine, a state with ten times as many bears as prisoners.

But even with its small prison population, Maine had relied too heavily on solitary confinement in recent years. Tapley notes that Maine's conservative new governor, Paul LePage, has actually listened to prison reform activists and reexamined the state's use of solitary confinement. LePage appointed a former Corrections Corporation of America warden, Joseph Ponte, as the state's corrections director, and Ponte has delivered on the promise to reduce solitary confinement.

(Ponte has also said he would work with his former employer to build a private prison in the state, but that's another story.)

The grassroots support and political structure is in place for other states to follow Maine.

LePage's actions in Maine and organizations like Right on Crime show that shrinking solitary isn't a left-vs.-right issue. But for these reforms to take root nationwide, your voice is needed. National advocacy organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)_, have built a framework to take action and inform your elected representatives on how to make these changes happen.

The American Friends Service Committee has worked on this issue for years and has an online tool to contact state officials about the issue. The ACLU has also been at the front of the movement to end solitary confinement and this summer launched some excellent tools for organizing and action.

Visit their Stop Solitary site for fact sheets and model legislation to share with your legislators.

And to follow the issue more closely at this pivotal moment, you don't need to look further then the excellent blog coverage delivered almost daily by James Ridgeway, Jean Casella and their team at Solitary Watch.

Prisoners in solitary confinement have been (almost literally) invisible for too long, and now the time is right for us to speak up on their behalf.

Matt Kelley is the online communications manager at the Innocence Project. Views expressed here are his alone. He welcomes reader comments.

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