Saturday, September 12, 2015

GateHouse: Prison officials: Solitary confinement a ‘grave problem’

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
September 11, 2015

A report issued last week by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School titled “Time-in-Cell” found that prison officials have characterized inmate isolation as a “grave problem” and are searching for alternatives for most inmates.

The report analyzed data from 34 jurisdictions, housing about 73 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners. The report identified more than 66,000 prisoners in some form of restricted housing — whether termed “administrative segregation,” “disciplinary segregation” or “protective segregation,” reported the National Law Journal. Disciplinary segregation is the “prison within a prison.” Inmates who violate prison rules are sent to isolation. Administrative segregation might include an inmate with mental illness who is disruptive or a gang member who is a threat to security. Protective segregation might include inmates who are at risk for abuse within the prison or may have cooperated with prison officials in an investigation.

If the numbers above are illustrative of the whole prison system, in 2014 about 80,000 to 100,000 inmates were in some form of isolation. The numbers do not include people in local jails, juvenile facilities, or in military and immigration detention.

To corrections officials, solitary confinement is needed to contain disruptive prisoners who may harm other inmates or staff. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, some inmate rights advocates believe that solitary confinement is a violation of human rights--defensible only for limited times with clear rules for a return to general population.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rarely mentioned solitary confinement, and it has never ruled whether the practice violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. However, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently wrote about solitary confinement concluding that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”

According to the New York Times, Kennedy tried to bolster his position by quoting Dostoevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Later he wrote in an opinion about the plight of inmate (he) “has been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day; and in the one hour when he leaves it, he likely is allowed little or no opportunity for conversation or interaction with anyone.”

Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has conducted a number of studies interviewing hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement. In one study, he found that roughly a third of inmates in solitary confinement were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” According to PBS Frontline, Grassian has since concluded that solitary confinement can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory.

In California, the Department of Corrections recently settled a lawsuit that will limit how long inmates can spend in isolation, while creating restrictive custody units for inmates who refuse to participate in rehabilitation programs or violate prison rules.

California has a history of keeping inmates isolated for longer than any other state, at times up to a decade or more, reported The Christian Science Monitor. The California settlement will limit segregation to inmates who commit new crimes behind bars. The state will no longer lock gang members in soundproofed, windowless cells solely to keep them from directing illegal activities by fellow gang members.

Solitary confinement will continue to be controversial. Corrections departments across the country need to find a balance between the safe and efficient management of correctional facilities and the inmates’ constitutional rights.

As California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press the settlement will “move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system.”

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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