Solitary Confinement: Time to End State-Sponsored Insanity

07/02/2012 05:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Gregory Russell knows all about solitary confinement. He lived it for four years straight in a New York State prison. He was locked in his cell 23 hours a day, with one hour out for recreation. For him, it was "being buried alive."

"It was two years before I felt the sun hit my skin," he said. "It was like I was a mole. I would wake up at three or four in the morning with anxiety attacks. At times it felt like the walls were closing in on me. There was no kind of rehabilitation. When I went back to general population, I was so far removed from being with people who I looked at them like they were aliens."

Russell says it was left to him to rehabilitate himself -- and he did. Through faith and determination, he has found his way to a new life on the outside, and even a career.

He acknowledges that he initially ended up in solitary after violating prison rules and engaging in gang-related violence. But did the punishment have to be so long, so inhumane, so devoid of rehabilitative measures? Did Russell have to be treated as if he were irredeemable?

With more than 80,000 of this nation's 2.3 million prisoners warehoused in solitary confinement, a growing chorus of Americans is rightly asking questions like these. And for the first time, Congress has turned a spotlight on the issue. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights just held an important hearing to reassess the use of solitary confinement, including the consequences to human rights, public safety and fiscal budgets.

What the senators heard painted a portrait of astonishingly inhumane and even unconstitutional treatment, extreme suffering and psychological torture in places where about half of all suicides in prison take place. They heard that juveniles ensnared in the criminal justice system are routinely subjected to this form of punishment, and that segregation units have become dumping grounds for mentally ill prisoners. While defenders of the practice insist that it combats dangerous behavior, the senators were told about research showing that severe social isolation actually ramps up violence.

The hearing was held at a time when more and more states are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement, and implementing reforms. As the American Civil Liberties Union suggested in its written testimony, Mississippi is an example of how things can be done more humanely and more effectively. That state has dramatically reduced its segregation population. For those who remain, there is more time out of their cells and programs aimed at rehabilitation. These and other reforms have cut costs by about $8 million a year and reduced violence by 70 percent. Maine, too, is offering more programming and social stimulation, and the Commissioner of Corrections must approve any decision to keep a prisoner in isolation for longer than three days. New York has enacted the SHU (Special Housing Unit) Exclusion Law, which makes it easier for mentally ill prisoners to leave or bypass solitary confinement.

Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois and the subcommittee's chairman, is drafting legislation to address some of the concerns his subcommittee heard. Meanwhile, the subcommittee should call on all local, state and federal corrections systems to adopt the American Bar Association's well-considered standards to reform the use of solitary confinement. Among other measures, the ABA calls for implementing an effective process to determine if a situation even warrants solitary confinement; requiring that stays in isolation be brief, only rarely exceeding a year; offering programming and access to television, radio and phone calls; allowing prisoners to gain more privileges and experience fewer restrictions; monitoring prisoners in segregation for mental health issues and placing those with serious mental illness in appropriate secure housing, not in solitary confinement..

Like most people in prison, most people in solitary will eventually return to our communities, to our neighborhoods. How we treat them while they are inside will go some way in determining the lives they live among us when they come home.

Gregory Russell was not irredeemable. In isolation, by the strength of his own will, he developed a daily regimen: prayer, bible study, exercise, writing, and more bible study. He went through much introspection. He is now home, and working for the office of the Brooklyn District Attorney -- the same D.A. who prosecuted him and sent him to prison -- as a case manager in ComALERT, a program that helps the formerly incarcerated to make a successful transition from prison to society.

"I was degraded and humiliated in solitary," he said. "But Christ found me there and saved my life."

Sheila R. Rule spent more than 30 years as a journalist at The New York Times. After retiring, she co-founded the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, which works to end the stigma of incarceration and help the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their families create their own opportunities.