Should We Ban The Use Of Solitary Confinement?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Kalief Browder

If you have ever been to New York, you probably have fond memories at the top of the Empire State Building or on the ferry to Liberty Island. You’ll have strolled through Central Park, paid your respects at Ground Zero and taken in a Broadway show. If you ventured out of the city, it was to go to Niagara Falls or maybe over to Rutherford, New Jersey to watch either a NY Giants or a NY Jets football game. What you more than likely ignored was the prison located on the island between Queens and the mainland Bronx. You maybe didn’t see it; you may have thought it was nothing more than a shipping yard. What you didn’t realise was that prison is Rikers Island, a notoriously dangerous prison full of violence, inmates awaiting trial and a significant number of cells used for solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is a punishment that has been used in the western world since the 1700s. The disputed origin of solitary confinement comes from the Quakers; they believed that putting prisoners in stone cells with nothing but a Bible would help them repent, pray and find introspection. In April 1829, the United States moved forward with an experiment based on the Quakers idea of solitary confinement. The experiment was to be carried out in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and by October 1829, Charles Williams – dubbed Prisoner Number One – was sentenced to 2 years solitary confinement with labour for burglary. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the prison and described it as “the system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…” By 1913, solitary confinement was abandoned at Eastern State Penitentiary and it became a regular prison.

While Eastern State Penitentiary ended the use of solitary confinement in the early 1900s, the practice quickly spread throughout the rest of the United States and also Europe. By the 1960s, the United Kingdom was experiencing a large increase in both prisoners and the use of solitary confinement largely thanks to the Irish Republican Army and their commitment to violent resistance. Isolating prisoners from fellow inmates was supposed to stop prison violence and also help reform inmates but multiple studies into the effects of solitary confinement show that the positive impact solitary confinement was supposed to have has yet to occur.

During the 1950s, University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow placed rhesus monkeys in segregation. The monkeys were kept in a custom-designed solitary chamber with sloped sides that made escape impossible. The monkeys would start to display signs of deprivation within the first few days. They would cower in their cage, rock back and forth uncontrollably and mutilate themselves. When they were eventually allowed near fellow monkeys, they could no longer function socially and would either be scared or violent. In 1951, researchers at McGill University carried out a similar experiment on male students. They were to be kept in a small room containing nothing but a bed and were made to wear goggles, earphones and gloves to limit senses. The study was to last for 6 weeks but no participant made it beyond seven days. The majority of the male students lost the ability to think clearly about anything and some started to hallucinate.

The effects of solitary confinement on prisoners are no different to the effects it had on the rhesus monkeys or McGill University experiment participants. Prisoners subjected to isolation in small cells for 22 or 23 hours a day typically show signs of isolation syndrome; the symptoms of which include depression, anxiety, anger, paranoia, psychosis, cognitive disturbances, self-harm and suicide. Inmates start to lash out as they struggle to cope with the symptoms and some prisoners resort to cutting themselves in order to feel like they’re in control of what’s happening to them. It’s not uncommon for correction officers to extract prisoners covered in their own blood from their cells.

Despite the United Nations warning that more than 15 days in solitary confinement is torturous for inmates, plenty of countries will allow prisoners to remain in segregation for a longer period of time. England, Wales and Poland allow prisoners to remain isolated for up to 28 days, in France and Estonia it's up to 45 days and prisoners in Ireland can find themselves in solitary confinement for up to 60 days. In the United States however, very few states have a set limit for how long inmates can be held in isolation for. During a prisoner’s time in solitary confinement, the symptoms of isolation syndrome quickly set in and it is often extremely difficult for prisoners to integrate back into both general population and everyday life should they be released from prison.

When Kalief Browder was finally released from Rikers Island after spending an estimated 800 days in solitary confinement, he was extremely paranoid that people were trying to get to him and he struggled to silence the voices in his head. He had already attempted suicide multiple times while being held in solitary confinement and he tried again a few more times when he was finally released from Rikers Island. Kalief took his own life on June 6th 2015, he was 22-years-old. Richard Stahursky, an inmate held in Maine State Prison, was allowed back into general population after spending years (he believes it to be around 9 years) in solitary confinement, his mental state was too far gone for him to be able to function appropriately. Stahursky, a victim of a child abuse, stabbed a convicted child abuser 87 times before casually walking over to a corrections officer and asking to be handcuffed. Stahurksy has since been sentenced to life in prison.

Devon Davis lived in isolation for 1001 days in the North Carolina prison system. When he was finally released, he went back to a family he barely knew and struggled to adapt. He was convinced his mum was trying to poison him, he was adamant people would track the phone he was given and, after just a few weeks of being back in the outside world, he had cut his mother and brother out of his life. The only help Davis received from the justice system was in the form of $45, a month’s supply of medication and a lift to his aunt’s house.

Sadly, Browder’s, Stahursky’s and Davis’ stories are all too common. It’s estimated that 20% of prisoners in the United States suffer from a serious mental illness but inmates held in segregation are often denied appropriate medical and mental health care. Anthony Gay, a prisoner held in Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois, spent 7 years in solitary confinement and during that period, his mental health deteriorated rapidly to the point where he mutilated himself on a regular basis and even cut off his own testicle and hung it from a string on his cell door. Rather than provide the correct care for Anthony Gay, he was given a 99 year sentence for multiple assaults against guards. These assaults included throwing feces and urine which is a common occurrence for prisoners held in solitary confinement. Gay has since won the appeal to have his new sentence overturned and is eligible for release in August this year. Tamms Correctional Center closed in 2013.

In 2005, 70% of the forty-four prisoners who committed suicide in California state prisons were in solitary confinement and a 2007 study examining attempted suicide in prison showed solitary confinement is a major factor in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (Solitary Watch Fact Sheet 2011). Despite the proof, the response to mass incarceration and the violence that can ensue in prisons is to isolate prisoners perceived to be a problem and ignore them for as long as possible. While in solitary confinement, poor treatment towards inmates goes undetected. Prisoners can be starved of food and water, be repeatedly beaten and left to die by prison guards without anyone noticing.

In September 2013, Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill prisoner of Rikers Island, was kept in an isolated cell in the mental observation unit. During the week he spent alone in his cell, Ballard was denied medication and was ignored by the guards that walked passed his cell. When Ballard was finally acknowledged, he was found unconscious on the floor; he was naked, covered in his own feces and his swollen, infected genitals were tied in a rubber band. Bradley Ballard died in hospital a few hours after he was found.

Just a few months later, a homeless ex-marine Jerome Murdough was found slumped in his segregated cell also in Rikers Island. Carol Lackner, the guard on duty, had falsified reports to show she had been patrolling the area where Murdough was being held every 30 minutes. In reality, Lackner had not visited Murdough or other inmates for around 4 hours and during this period, an equipment malfunction caused Murdough’s cell to overheat. He suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was on medication that made him more sensitive to heat. Murdough literally baked to death in his cell and his family weren’t informed of his death for 30 days.

While the use of solitary confinement in U.S prisons is rampant, President Obama took some steps to address the issue. In 2016, he passed an executive action that limits how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement for a first offence, stops juvenile offenders held in federal prison from being isolated and banned isolation as punishment for low-level infractions in the federal prison system. He also introduced new measures to provide better treatment for mentally ill prisoners; something that has the potential to help around 10,000 inmates. Despite the changes, solitary confinement is still being used for situations where medical intervention would be significantly more beneficial.

Although President Obama prohibited the use of solitary confinement in certain cases, his actions do not address segregating inmates in other situations. In Tennessee, the “safekeeping” law that has virtually gone unchallenged since 1858, allows inmates awaiting trial to be transferred from county jail to state prison where they can be held in solitary confinement before going to trial. The argument for this is county jails do not have the ability to provide appropriate care for inmates suffering from mental illnesses, contagious illnesses or are pregnant. Inmates suffering from mental illnesses are supposed to receive appropriate care after being sent to state prisons but they’re often left in solitary confinement and rarely, if ever, get to speak to a mental health professional. As of February this year, two Senate state committees will be looking into Tennessee’s safekeeping law; it is currently unknown what, if any, the changes will be.

Despite the majority of western countries taking steps to ensure solitary confinement is an extreme last resort, the United States is trailing behind. Earlier this year, the British Appeals Court refused to extradite accused hacker Lauri Love to the U.S after deciding the U.S prison system would not provide the appropriate medical care for Love’s physical and mental conditions. U.S prison officials had promised to place Love in solitary confinement should he begin to display any signs that he was contemplating suicide but this is ultimately the reason why the British Appeals Court refused to extradite Love. The court agreed that suicide prevention programs in the United States are more likely to increase the likelihood of suicide.

There is an overwhelming and ever-growing amount of evidence that proves solitary confinement does not work but we still allow the practice to continue. A prisoner with mental health issues should not be deemed “problematic” and hidden away, an infraction should not result in a prolonged trip to segregation. Depriving inmates of human contact, stimulation, appropriate medical attention and even their own medication is inhumane, ineffective and immoral. We cannot expect anyone who has experienced solitary confinement to integrate back into society without additional support; we cannot place anyone in isolation and expect them to reform. Solitary confinement is not, and will never be, the answer and it’s time we banned it completely.

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