THE BLOG

Time to Bring an End to Torture in Our Jails

03/05/2014 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2014
  • Rev. Ron Stief Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

There was a saying in my household growing up: "When you know better, you do better." Witnesses in last week's second Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences, brought this message to a U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin. What the senators now know is that long-term solitary confinement is torture and therefore immoral, antithetical to rehabilitation, fiscally wasteful, endangers institutional and community safety, and must be brought to an end.

There have been numerous failings of federal policy when it comes to solitary confinement. Decades of "tough on crime" political rhetoric and the war on drugs have yielded the punitive use of isolation as a common practice in U.S. confinement, usually in response to non-violent rule infractions. Women often end up in solitary confinement for reporting sexual abuse at the hands of a correctional officer. Immigrants in civil detention are not protected from placement in solitary confinement. Yet no judge nor jury is sentencing the more than 80,000 incarcerated people currently in solitary confinement to such a fate -- discretion is left up to corrections officials to determine length of isolation and rationale for placement in isolation. This is a recipe for disaster.

It is well known that solitary confinement is economically costly. Supermax prisons, which are comprised exclusively of isolation cells, cost generally two or three times more to build and operate than traditional maximum security prisons. The daily cost per inmate of solitary confinement far exceeds lower security facilities. There are more than 40 supermax prisons in the U.S. prison system, all comprised solely of long-term isolation cells.

Yet the Federal Bureau of Prisons has facilitated a 17 percent increase in its use of solitary confinement between 2008 and 2013. A May 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the use of segregation concluded that the Bureau has failed to evaluate even the most basic impacts of solitary confinement on institutional safety and the well-being of incarcerated persons. And last year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons discussed the possibility of adding 2,100 costly and inhumane new supermax beds to the federal system in Thomson, Ill.

We have known better for a long time. U.S. senators received testimony on how U.S. Supreme Court case law dating back to 1890 recognizes that conditions of long-term solitary confinement cause irreparable harm. And for those concerned with re-entry, testimony noted that it is a common practice of U.S. prisons to release individuals directly from conditions of extreme isolation -- where the human spirit has been destroyed -- into the streets, leading to dramatic increases in recidivism and incidence of violence.

It should have been a stirring call to action for the senators and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to consider testimony from Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and others demonstrating the broad movement to address solitary confinement at the state level.

Mississippi has reportedly saved more than $5 million and experienced a decline in violence within its prisons after it drastically reduced its use of solitary confinement by 85 percent in one supermax unit. Mississippi eventually closed the facility altogether.

In Maryland, where on any given day, roughly 8.5 percent of people incarcerated in state facilities are subjected to solitary confinement, a study bill has been introduced to look at the use of isolation in state and local jurisdictions. The bill is an important step in the state following broad national recognition that solitary confinement is immoral, fiscally wasteful, endangers institutional and community safety, and must be brought to an end.

The Texas legislature passed a segregation study bill in 2013.

In California, in response to three historic prison hunger strikes protesting long-term solitary confinement, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco has recently proposed legislation (Assembly Bill 1652) to restrict how solitary confinement is used in California prisons.

Massachusetts state legislators have introduced "An Act Relative to the Appropriate Use of Solitary Confinement" calling for appropriate standards prior to placing a prisoner in solitary confinement, decreasing the extreme isolation of solitary, and encouraging individualized rehabilitation programming and close mental health monitoring for people in solitary confinement.

And in New York, the "Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act" was introduced in the New York State Assembly. The bill is the most comprehensive legislative response to date -- limiting the use of solitary confinement in the state's prisons and jails to 15 consecutive days for most inmates and banning the punishment outright for certain inmate groups.

In fairness, much of this state legislation still has a long way to go. Yet, the United States' legal commitments to Constitutional and international human rights standards prohibiting the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment demands swift action to end the use of long-term solitary confinement because it is a form of torture.

One of the star witnesses at the Congressional hearing last week - at least I thought so - was Damon Thibodeaux, who was in solitary confinement for 15 years on death row before he was released after being exonerated through DNA testing. He described for the senators the debilitating and dehumanizing conditions of U.S. prisons -- conditions that involve isolating incarcerated persons in a cell alone for 23-24 hours a day, in a space the size of a bathroom, for weeks, months, years, even decades. He talked about the panic attacks and suicidal urges. He noted that if anyone in the hearing room were reported for doing the same thing to someone in their own home, they would be immediately taken into custody.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture submitted testimony stating that it is time for the United States to do better. We must end our nation's reliance on solitary confinement and the mass incarceration that drives it, and focus scarce resources on rehabilitative alternatives and mental health treatment to increase community safety. It's time to bring an end to torture.