Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons and Jails: Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

By Clinical Professor Samantha Buckingham

There are an estimated 80,000 Americans in U.S. prisons and jails who are housed in solitary confinement on any given day. In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of solitary confinement for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. Prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day locked down in isolation. The practice is used often for punishment and in the name of protecting prisoners.

On Tuesday, June 19, the U.S. Senate's Assistant Majority Leader, Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), held the first Congressional hearing ever to be held on solitary confinement. The hearing highlighted a horrific juvenile case and featured live testimony from both a former prisoner who endured the conditions and corrections officials. Sen. Durbin and his committee sought to examine the psychological and psychiatric impact on prisoners held in solitary confinement, the expense in running solitary units, the human rights issues involved, and state reforms which offer successful alternatives to the use of solitary.

To replicate what the conditions in solitary confinement are like for American prisoners, the ACLU assembled a real cell in Sen. Durbin's chambers. The cell was roughly 7 feet by 10 feet. It had nothing inside except for a bunk and a toilet. There was a small, out of reach window, which was covered, and a slot in the door just like the ones through which prisoners in solitary receive food trays.

In my written testimony, I described how the use of solitary confinement impacted two clients I have represented. The two stories illuminate some of the problems with the use of solitary confinement with vulnerable populations, particularly children who are charged as adults, the mentally ill, those who have previously endured abuse and neglect, and those who are at risk for suicide.

Solitary confinement is often used to separate juveniles who are housed in adult facilities, ostensibly for their own protection. But in fact, it can inflict more harm upon children than it can offer protection. No matter the reason for the use of solitary, prisoners are locked down for 23 (sometimes 24) hours a day, 7 days a week, and sometimes for decades at a time. Prisoners in solitary confinement, juveniles in particular, commit suicide at a much higher rate than the general population.

Medical professionals cited issues which arise from the very limited access that is allotted to them to treat their patients in solitary. Some have stepped forward as advocates to reduce the use of solitary. In many instances, medical professionals are denied access to prisoners in dire need of mental health treatment and are limited only to information relayed to them by corrections officers on duty. Oftentimes, a corrections officer will make observations solely through the lens of a video camera placed inside the prisoner's cell. This limited access poses serious ethical dilemmas for mental health professionals who need to administer aid to patients in confinement.

On Tuesday, June 19, the Governor of Illinois (from Sen. Durbin's home state), announced that he would close the Tamms supermax prison facility in his state. At Tamms, all prisoners are held in solitary confinement and spend 23 hours a day, for years at a time, without any human contact.

Also in the backdrop, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") is being sued over conditions in a supermax facility in Florence, CO called ADX. The suit alleges that prisoners with untreated psychological and psychiatric issues are being held in solitary confinement. These prisoners are engaging in self-harm with whatever meager utensils they can find or create, smear their own feces about their cells, and scream for hours at a time.

The hearing brought to our public consciousness the human rights issues implicated by the use of solitary confinement to detain U.S. prisoners. Hopefully, this hearing was the first step towards reform and the limitation of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Stay tuned to see what develops from the recent attention on this important issue.

To watch the hearing click here.

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