The evidence of the dangers of extended solitary confinement in prisons is overwhelming, to the point that one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative justices, Anthony Kennedy, all but invited a challenge last month on the grounds that it should be prohibited as cruel and unusual.
It is. The only real question is, what can take its place when prison administrators need to discipline a dangerous inmate or protect others from harm? But start with the first thing: Prolonged solitary confinement is known to cause permanent psychiatric problems. It needs to be reformed and restricted.
It is a problem that is easy to ignore, given that it is out of sight for most people, many of whom – understandably enough – don’t really care what happens to people in prison.
But they should care. Whatever prisons are meant to achieve, creating mental illness through cruel policies cannot be among them. That is true simply from a humanitarian point of view, but also from a practical one: Some of these people will someday be released. Then what?
Of course, as even some opponents of the practice acknowledge, it serves an important and practical use. Once a person has been imprisoned for a crime, what mechanisms are available to punish further misconduct? Prisons are already high-pressure environments, and some percentage of their populations will act out. There needs to be a way to deter and punish unacceptable conduct. Solitary confinement is one of those methods.
Perhaps it won’t be possible to do away with the practice completely. Maybe its imposition can be better restricted, along with its duration. At least 15 state legislatures are considering such a policy change. In California, lawmakers are reviewing a bill to prohibit its use on mentally ill inmates in juvenile facilities and restrict its use for others.
It’s good that they are, because change appears to be inevitable. Justice Kennedy has signalled a likely declaration of unconstitutionality and President Obama, by virtue of his visit to a prison in Oklahoma, has raised the profile of an issue that already has attracted bipartisan attention.
Obama can directly affect only federal prisons and, even then, it is uncertain what he can accomplish. But he can make a start. He should do it in conjunction with prison officials and other experts who can offer advice on what restrictions should be imposed and what other appropriate punishments might help in ensuring order in what are, by definition, desperate places.
It’s better to clear the track before this train comes through and forces the issue. It’s also the right thing for a good country to do.