The use of solitary confinement in prisons and its impact on inmates has never really been in the spotlight or the subject of serious discussion. However, attention to this issue started in June when a U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the matter. Dramatic testimony was provided by exoneree Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years wrongfully incarcerated. Graves described his experience to the subcommittee – “I lived behind a steel door that had two small slits in it, the space replaced with iron and wire, which was dirty and filthy…I had no television, no telephone and most importantly, I had no physical contact with another human being.” Partly based on Graves’ testimony, the senators indicated a desire to work on changes to the way solitary confinement is used. Since the Senate hearing, two in-depth reports have been released on the practice of solitary confinement in prisons with both providing detailed reasons why the practice should be halted.
The first report, The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units, was released by Amnesty International and focused on California prisons. The organization gained exclusive access to isolation units in California and explored the conditions of confinement endured by more than 3,000 prisoners – including 78 who have spent in excess of two decades in isolation. The report describes, in detail, the conditions inside and outside a cell. Prisoners in isolation are confined to at least 22 and a half hours a day in cells measuring fewer than eighty square feet. In Pelican Bay State Prison, over 1,000 inmates are confined alone in windowless cells with poor access to natural light. Exercise is limited to and hour and a half a day, alone in a bare, concrete yard with 20 foot high walls with only a patch of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof. Prisoners in isolation don’t have access to work, rehabilitation programmes or group activities on any kind. They are also prevented from any contact with the outside world, consultations with medical staff take place behind barriers and visits from family or lawyers take place behind a glass screen. Prisoners are not entitled to regular telephone contact with relatives. “The conditions and length of imprisonment in California’s isolation units are simply shocking,” said Angela Wright, US Researcher at Amnesty International who visited a number of prisons in the state.
Also, even though isolation is intended for extreme cases, many prisoners who end up in such units have mental illness or behavioural problems and have sometimes been confined for repeated, relatively minor rule infractions and disruptive behaviour. Over 2,000 prisoners are being held in isolation after being “validated” as members or associates of prison gangs. This ends up having an severe impact on the mental health of inmates. In addition to increased suicides, studies have found that negative effects from prolonged isolation can continue long after release and the lack of pre-release or transitional programming for inmates who may have spent years, or decades in isolation before being released directly back on to the street makes successful reintegration into society that much harder. Based on its findings, Amnesty International suggested several reforms, including limiting the use of isolation as a case of last resort, improving conditions, expanding privileges, and removing those who have spent years in isolation.
The second report, issued by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, makes the case that the use of solitary confinement for youth offenders under the age of 18 should be banned. The report, called Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement, argues that, while brief periods of isolation may be needed as a security measure, longer spans of solitary confinement can cause serious psychological and physical harm to young people, including a heightened risk of suicide. The report is based on the author’s interviews and correspondence with more than 125 young people in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18, as well as with jail and/or prison officials in 10 states. This includes youths who have spent time in prisons after being charged as an adult. The conditions of isolation including limited contact with others, confinement for up to 22 hours per day, and a small cell, can lead to mental health issues and suicide attempts. The report recommends that youths not be place in isolation and not be housed in adult prisons.
Many correctional officials state that solitary confinement is only used for disciplinary and security reasons. However, the number of lawsuits being filed indicate that the use of isolation is not the proper way to discipline inmates, especially youths.
Two California Innocence Project clients, Daniel Larsen and Reggie Cole, both spent significant time in solitary confinement and their experiences mirror the Amnesty International report. Both had to cope with the conditions of isolation and the stress of being a person wrongfully incarcerated. Changes must be made to the practice and use of solitary confinement and must be made immediately.