Use of segregated housing in U.S. prisons and jails has risen significantly in recent years, even as evidence grows that the practice harms inmates.
The number of federal inmates in segregated housing, commonly termed solitary confinement, grew 17 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited in a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice. That was nearly triple the 6 percent rise in the overall federal prison population during the same period.
While some prison officials and policy makers defend the practice, the report, Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives, argues that in Europe, solitary confinement is regarded as torture and that more humane policies would better serve inmates. The report seeks to correct what it calls common misconceptions about solitary confinement, including that it deters violence and disruptive behavior among the general inmate population, that it protects at-risk inmates, and that while conditions may be stark, they are not inhumane.
Over the past 150 years, several reports have found, “subjecting an individual to more than 10 days of involuntary segregation results in a distinct set of emotional, cognitive, social and physical pathologies.”
When an inmate is placed in solitary confinement, he or she is confined to a cell (either alone or with a cellmate) for 22 to 24 hours a day with limited contact with the natural world. The experience disrupts social interaction, removes “the sights and sounds of life,” and there are severe restrictions on “eating, showering or recreating.”
Prison officials say solitary confinement is used only as a last resort, the harmful effects are overstated and not well understood, and that alternatives are expensive. But in practice, solitary confinement instead remains a management tool for prison and jail officials due to misunderstandings on when and how to use it, the report states.
“Vera’s experience in the field has shown that disruptive behavior—such as talking back, being out of place, failure to obey an order, failing to report to work or school or refusing to change housing units or cells—frequently lands incarcerated people in disciplinary segregation.”
Officials additionally say, solitary confinement is needed to protect some inmates, such as former law enforcement officers and public officials; those with mental illness, developmental or intellectual disabilities; and those vulnerable because of their sexuality, or in danger of retaliation from other prisoners because of sex offenses against children. However, under the pretense of protection, these vulnerable inmates are placed in the same conditions and restriction reserved for inmates who commit the most violent and dangerous acts.
In the federal prison system, and at least 19 states, officials are permitted to hold people in segregated housing indefinitely, Vera reports.
In September, the California changed its Security Housing Unit (SHU) lock-up procedures, so that no inmate could be held in there indefinitely.
Prison reformers expect other states to follow the California reforms as to how inmates are assigned to SHUs and how long they stay there, UPI reports.
More than 2,000 prisoners in California SHUs are expected to be affected by the change.
Those subjected to solitary confinement are at times permanently harmed by it, even after being released from prison, according to Vera’s report. “Between 1987 and 2007, California released an estimated 900 incarcerated people each year directly to the community from its secure housing units; in 2013, Texas released more than 1,200 incarcerated people in this way.”
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