A dozen states are looking to reform the way they use solitary confinement, says NPR in the first of a three-part series. In a sign of how hard it might be to shift away from long-term isolation in U.S. prisons, as President Obama condemned the use solitary confinement last month, his administration is finishing construction of a $200 million Supermax correctional facility in Illinois. Its hundreds of isolation cells are expected to begin holding inmates next year. Juan Mendez, a United Nations special investigator on human rights has worked extensively on the issue of U.S. solitary confinement.
It’s common, for prisons in the U.S. to hold young people, inmates with mental illness and pregnant mothers in long-term isolation, he says. “The psychiatric and medical literature is very clear. Deprivation of meaningful social contact does create pain and suffering,” Mendez says. Studies show that solitary confinement can lead to higher rates of suicide and other forms of mental illness, even in modern prisons where inmates in segregation cells are sometimes allowed radios or televisions. Those findings have led top prison administrators like Greg Marcantel in New Mexico to look for new ways to scale it back. “It’s very, very easy to overuse segregation. I mean, for a guy like me, it’s safe, right? It’s safe. If these prisons are quiet, I don’t get fired,” he says.