A solitary epiphany

“They treat me like an animal, so I’m going to act like one”, a client once said to me at the end of a two hour meeting in which we had discussed his life and the host of disciplinary problems he was experiencing in jail. “I’m not an animal”, he continued, “but in here, when you’re surrounded by the smell of piss, shit and blood every day and when they [the guards] spit at you and tell you you’re not human, but an animal. you become one”. He ended with the strikingly poignant “fuck them”.

The client was in solitary. He had a concrete cell with a thick metal door and no window. He was fed through a slot in the door and there was a one inch wide and 5 inch long “window” on the door of his cell that looked out onto a narrow corridor and other similar doors. He was, at times, chained in his cell. He’d had a TV for a bit, but they’d taken him away. He’d had a few books, but they wouldn’t allow him to have more than one or two at a time. Toilet paper was scarce. He could only take a birdbath. He hadn’t been out of his cell in days. He only got one hour a day, by himself in a cage, in a concrete “courtyard” where the walls stretched 30 feet upward like a chimney and an opening at the top that was covered with a grate, also like a chimney. Sunshine was something you imagined, not experienced.

Whether he, or any other client of mine deserved to be held in those conditions is something I will not discuss. But their experience, their conditions are common. In this State and throughout the country. At CT’s Northern Correctional Institution – the only Level 5 facility in the state – there are 310 staff members for 352 inmates. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m willing to bet that a large majority of them are held in solitary confinement or its equivalent.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

The concept of solitary confinement has some appeal, if only superficially. Isolate a troublesome inmate as a punishment and hope that they reflect upon their actions that landed them there. Deprive them of human interaction and they’ll learn to behave well with others.

But anyone willing to give the concept more than a minute’s thought can point out the serious flaws with this argument. Depriving someone of human interaction and depriving them of humanity are two entirely different beasts, one far more dangerous than the other. As anyone who’s ever been laid up sick at home for days on end – or someone who’s ever gotten stuck in an elevator or between locked doors in a jail – can attest, the sense of isolation and abandonment seriously distorts our mental health.

And our prisons are full of people – diagnosed or otherwise – who suffer from mild to severe mental illnesses. Solitary confinement only serves to exacerbate and fine tune.

Only lately, it seems, has the message begun to get through:

Many states continue to house inmates with mental illness in isolation. Some inmates appear to function adequately in solitary confinement or even say they prefer it. But studies suggest that the rigid control, absence of normal human interaction and lack of stimulation imposed by prolonged isolation can cause a wide range of psychological symptoms including insomnia, withdrawal, rage and aggression, depression, hallucinations and thoughts of suicide, even in prisoners who are mentally healthy to begin with.

States are closing their supermax prisons, taking people out of solitary and the results are surprising:

They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.

In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000. So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.

The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most criminal justice reforms, this paradigm shift comes not of some fundamental epiphany regarding the way we treat those among us, but from economics. They’re just too damn costly. And that’s fine, I suppose, for it brings about a favored result. But it does nothing to correct a greater problem prevalent in our correctional systems: that there’s very little correction and rehabilitation going on. There needs to be a change in attitude towards inmates. Most of them – almost all, in fact – will be released some day. They will rejoin us in society. They will live among us and try to work side-by-side with us.

Will they come out with a greater disdain for society and its rules and the better nature of us all? Or will they come out believing that no matter what, they’re still animals, and having had that drilled into their heads for years and decades, decide to act accordingly?

While celebrating the shift away from harsh, torturous conditions, I fear that the only actual difference is a change of scene for this play. The content will remain the same. And until we – all of us – accept and understand that the near inhuman treatment of others only makes us like them and them like us, safety will only be an illusion. And humanity a forgotten ideal.

5 thoughts on “A solitary epiphany

  1. A Voice of Sanity

    Why aren’t some of the unemployed lawyers I keep hearing about suing the state on behalf of one of these prisoners? And keeping on doing it? After all, there’s almost nothing to lose and if you win you’ve learned something and the state might finally see the light.

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