The most riveting moment of the Emmy Awards was Michael Douglas's plea to be allowed to visit his son, Cameron, in prison. Cameron has been addicted to drugs for most of his life, and ended up sentenced to a federal prison in a highly publicized case.
I was stunned to learn that Cameron is in solitary confinement for two years. He got high in prison, and should rightly be punished for this breach of the rules. But two years in isolation is excessive.
Michael Douglas, in a cry of the heart, described how severely his son is being punished, "...if you happen to have a slip, and this is for a prisoner who is nonviolent, as about a half-million of our drug-addicted prisoners are -- he's spent almost two years in solitary confinement. Right now I've been told that I can't see him for two years. It's been over a year now. And I'm questioning the system."
Cameron Douglas is not the only non-violent inmate put into such harsh confinement. The Vera Institute reports that officials found 17 packs of Newport cigarettes in one inmate's cell. He was sent to solitary for 15 days for each pack of cigarettes - 8 months in isolation for 17 packs of cigarettes!
Isolation units were originally intended for extremely violent criminals - the "worst of the worst." However, over the years the net has been widened to include drug users, the mentally ill, frequent litigants and others who are an irritant to staff.
In addition, California spends far more to hold the inmates in solitary confinement: $77,740 for every inmate in an administrative segregation unit, and $171,857 for every inmate in a psychiatric unit, compared to the average of $47,000 spent per ordinary inmates.
You might be surprised that I am speaking out on this issue, because I am a businessman, an evangelical Christian, and a conservative. However, I have seen many of these inmates turn their lives around, and become solid, law-abiding, contributing members of the community.
I work with The Urban Ministry Institute, which seeks to help inmates turn their lives around and give them a moral compass. All we ask is that they return to their neighborhoods and help the church reach out to other youngsters to restore peace to their communities. Since 95 percent of inmates will eventually be released, isn't it important that they be given an opportunity to change?
When inmates get sent to "the hole," they are cut off from our classes. They cannot participate in other educational activities or life skills classes, either. And they are cut off from their families, isolating them from all positive influences in their life.
The men are held in their cells for at least 22 1/2 hours a day, with only a blank wall to stare at. There is no direct sunlight, and they cannot see other inmates or the officers. This environment with little to stimulate the mind often causes severe mental deterioration. More than 50 percent of inmate suicides occur in isolation units.
The Colorado Department of Corrections found that 47 percent of inmates in solitary were released straight out the gate with no preparation. It is little wonder that an investigation by the Denver Post found that half of Colorado parolees who murdered had spent time in solitary confinement.
Washington State found that inmates who were taken directly from Supermax to the street had significantly higher felony recidivism rates and committed new offenses sooner than prisoners who spent three or more months back in the general prison population before release to the community.
Some corrections officials are bringing significant reforms to isolation. Chris Epps, the Commissioner of Corrections in Mississippi, had his staff create a profile of prisoners they believed should be in solitary confinement, and then looked at the jackets of the inmates that were held in solitary. They found that 80 percent did not fit the profile.
Epps tightened the criteria for sending an inmate to solitary. They now require that inmates sent to isolation must have committed serious rule infractions, be active high-level gang members, or have attempted to escape from a secure facility. Now, low level infractions are disciplined by reducing privileges and penalties that cost far less than solitary. The results of Commissioner Epps's reforms are impressive:
- 85 percent reduction in the numbers of prisoners in isolation
- almost 70 percent drop in prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence
- far fewer "use of force" incidents by prison staff
Other states are following Epps' lead. His reforms should be adopted by California and all the other states, as well as our federal prisons. There will be fewer victims, and we'll all be safer if they do.