- The US prison system is inhumane and the coronavirus pandemic exposes just how much it needs to be reformed.
- One way to start those reforms is to get rid of solitary confinement, which is barbaric and lends itself to the worst practices by prison officials.
- The World Health Organization, the United Nations and other international bodies have also recognized solitary confinement as significantly harmful and potentially fatal.
- We should start the reforms of our prison system by getting rid of solitary confinement,
- Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
To anyone paying attention, it’s become clear that the US prison system is inhumane and disproportionately affects the Black community. But even within this system, there is another tool that is making these inequities even worse.
Solitary confinement is the prison system’s worst torture device, and it is used all too frequently. Most repugnant of all is the fact that the specter of COVID-19 is giving prison officials cover to more freely deploy solitary confinement tactics, laughingly in the name of safety.
The power of the people to come together and resist cruelty has become clear, with protests for Black Lives Matter continuing across the country and Portland pulling together in solidarity against the government’s terrifying and constitutionally questionable presence there.The will of the people focuses on human rights and ending injustice, and one way to advance those goals is through a call to end to the cruel use of extended periods of isolation in prisons across the country.
Legislation, like the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in New York, should be taken up across the country to limit solitary confinement. And even as those bills work their way through the government, prisons should be proactive and end solitary confinement longer than 15 consecutive days.
The reality of solitary
In the pandemic, the need to reform the prison system is even more serious. Health experts have warned solitary confinement is quite different to medical isolation and actually increases the spread and harm of COVID-19.
The strain of isolation on people actually weakens their immune systems, while increasing guard contact (in many cases guards have to check on people every 15 minutes). This means they are more likely to catch the virus, and more susceptible to a serious illness with it.
As is becoming increasingly clear, even if a person survives a serious case of COVID, there are potentially lifelong implications for the lungs, vital organs and even possible neurological impacts. Solitary primes people to be more likely to develop a more serious case — a true “life sentence,” no matter how long their incarceration is supposed to last.
In the US, there are more than 80,000 prisoners at any given time in isolated confinement, with around 25,000 permanently isolated in supermax prisons. Solitary is supposed to be a last resort for prisoners too violent to be around fellow prisoners. However, correctional officers have discretionary power over isolation, permitting bias to corrupt the process.
With prisons overcrowded and often unsafe due to the poor environment and care for prisoners, studies have found that officers who work in chaotic and hostile work environments are more likely to use retaliatory measures — including unfair use of solitary. Now, prisoners desperate to feel safe from COVID, are punished for trying to avoid picking up the deadly virus.
This is wrong. The World Health Organization, the United Nations and other international bodies have recognized solitary confinement as significantly harmful and potentially fatal. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care issued guidance to correctional health officials back in 2016 and identified a period of confinement beyond 15 consecutive days as “inhumane, degrading treatment, and harmful to an individual’s health.” This guidance is in reality ignored, but the consequences are real.
Young people under 21 are one of the most vulnerable groups that must be legally protected from overuse of solitary in any situation — along with people older than 55, pregnant women and those in postpartum recovery, or individuals with disabilities and chronic mental illnesses.
For young people and children who are by nature at a key stage of development, isolation can lead to permanent psychiatric effects and symptoms. Older people suffer increased risk of – or indeed worsened symptoms of — chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s or heart disease.
Meanwhile, people living with disabilities or mental illness are more vulnerable to the effects of isolation, but also more likely to end up in solitary as under trained staff struggle to cope with their care. The Kalief Browder tragedy speaks to this horrible truth: the mental anguish caused by this awful practice – especially on young people – is clear.
We must protect these groups from the anguish of solitary immediately as the first step towards phasing out the practice nationwide.
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Many states have started looking at solitary, realizing data and our consciences can’t support it. New York made a piecemeal offering to try and relate the practice away in place of strong legislation like HALT, but that offer has yet to come to fruition.
Elsewhere, there are some positives. In Colorado, inmates in solitary spent an average of 23 months there, an outrageous violation of human rights. The state, fortunately, has outlawed stays longer than 15 days, with even shorter stays often supplemented by therapy or anger-management classes. We must learn from this action.
However, examples like Colorado’s aren’t enough. We need immediate action, especially in the face of the current pandemic. New York legislators must pass HALT Solitary Confinement — and across the country, this psychological torture lasting longer than two weeks must be outlawed as well as any use of solitary on vulnerable groups like those previously discussed.
As with any movement, this is just the beginning. Solitary confinement does not belong in a civilized society. First, the worst excesses must be outlawed, but steps must be taken to eliminate solitary confinement outright. There’s no place for it in a fair justice system. The people are calling for care rather than cruelty. Legislators must answer them.
Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice and is a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.
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