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How to fix solitary confinement in American prisons

Hundreds of prisoners live in solitary confinement in Los Angeles County jails. On average, they spend at least one year in a cell the size of a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall, leaving only a few times a week, one at a time, for showers or exercise. Meals arrive through a slot in the cell door. Between the long hours in isolation and the steel doors, a prisoner might go days, or longer, without looking another person in the eye.

Solitary confinement costs taxpayers 2 to 3 times more per prisoner than less restrictive forms of incarceration. California officials estimated they would save $28 million this year by reducing the state’s solitary confinement population by even a few hundred prisoners. But solitary is even more expensive in social terms. It can cause serious psychological damage — anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations that may continue long after prisoners return to our neighborhoods.

The U.S. Supreme Court attempted to abandon solitary confinement in the late 19th century, calling the practice barbaric. Almost 100 years later, in the 1970s, courts in California and across the United States were still chastising prison officials for keeping prisoners locked in their cells for months at a time, with little access to running water, lighting or human contact.

In 1995, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson found that conditions in the isolation unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, “hover[ed] on the edge of what is humanly tolerable.” Fifteen years and few reforms later, prisoners there began a hunger strike to prove the truth of Henderson’s assertion. Thirty thousand prisoners in and out of isolation joined the protest, which ultimately curtailed the practice of indefinite solitary confinement in the state. The hunger strikes are a reminder that legal oversight is just one mechanism of reform; public attention is crucial, too.

A series of isolation-related tragedies across the United States have revealed just how debilitating solitary confinement can be, and how dangerous its outcomes. This, in turn, has maintained the pressure for reform.

Last year, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide. He had been arrested on a robbery charge when he was 16 and incarcerated for three years in New York’s Rikers Island jail, including two years in solitary confinement. The charges against him were dropped. In custody and after his release, Browder attempted suicide multiple times, until he finally hung himself. “Prior to going to jail,” he told CNN in 2013, “I never had any mental illness.”

Prisoners are not the only ones who experience the harm of isolation. In 2013, a prisoner released directly from long-term “administrative segregation” killed Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Clements’ successor would later write of the killer, Evan Ebel, “Whatever solitary confinement did to [him], it was not for the better.” Before Ebel killed Clements, few Americans knew that prisoners were being released directly from solitary confinement back into our communities.

Now, Colorado, New York, California and even Los Angeles County are among the jurisdictions working to reform solitary confinement. But top-down rule changes, imposed by judges or heads of corrections systems, have never been enough to fix solitary confinement. The guards who staff isolation units must be enlisted. They decide which prisoners go into isolation, for how long, and under what conditions. They see the effects of solitary confinement, and they are in a position to know how a bad situation could be improved. Too often their perspective has been excluded from policy debates. 

In the state of Washington, it was current and former prison guards who designed a new classroom chair for their isolation units. The chair keeps prisoners restrained but still permits face-to-face contact; it replaces steel, phone-booth-sized “Hannibal Lecter” cages that forced prisoners to stand and look straight ahead through a fenced window during any kind of group activity. The chairs’ restraints are harsh, but any increase in face-to-face contact protects prisoners from further psychological disintegration.

Staff working in solitary confinement units need more resources to deal with prisoners perceived as dangerous or troubled. They need expert help with educational efforts and mental health treatment. And the units themselves need to reconfigured, so that prisoners have access to natural light and sensory input other than cell walls and bars.

Most importantly, isolation cannot become a permanent condition. There must be limits, and opportunities to move prisoners out of solitary confinement into dedicated mental health treatment, or into the general population with rehabilitative programming. In Maine, Colorado and Washington, prison officials have experimented with moving prisoners from isolation units into mental health treatment units, resulting in healthier prisoners and safer prisons.

In all these efforts, transparency is important. Taxpayers fund solitary confinement, and live alongside its survivors, but we know too little about what goes on inside prisons. States must collect data, and make it available for independent analysis: Who is isolated in solitary confinement, for how long, why and with what result?

Reform efforts to date have still left U.S. prisons hovering at “the edge of what is humanly tolerable.” We can do better — by keeping track of the human beings locked in solitary confinement, identifying ways to transition them out of isolation and dealing more directly with the overworked and often under-resourced prison officials managing these difficult populations.

Keramet Reiter is an assistant professor of criminology and law at UC Irvine and the author of “23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long Term Solitary.”

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