THE BLOG
01/22/2016 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Lawrence Phillips' Suspected Suicide: Solitary Confinement Is Sometimes Underused

The number of suicides in solitary confinement recently increased by one with the passing of former NFL star and college football champion Lawrence Phillips. It's reported he took his own life in solitary confinement at Kern Valley State Prison on January 13, 2016.

By itself, the dire deprivation of solitary confinement makes a solid case for its abolition; solitary's suicide rate - half of all prison suicides are committed in solitary even though only 5% of prisoners live in those housing units - adds to the argument. It seems more sensible just to stop placing people in conditions that shove them toward self-harm.

But Phillips' situation, unfortunately, proves why we can't do that. Prisoners who pose danger must be situated somewhere safe and that place is solitary confinement.

Overuse of solitary confinement, like mass incarceration, is a response to a systematic failure; it's that pound of cure we try to squeeze into the one-ounce bag labeled 'prevention.' The reason why prisons place people in these long-term stints in segregation is that no one intruded on a prisoner's dysfunction earlier.

If Phillips had been shuttled - for only a few days and given some counseling - into some type of seclusion back in March when he wrote to his mother "I feel my anger is near bursting and that will result in my death or the death of someone else," then his former cellmate might not have been strangled and Phillips wouldn't have been facing murder charges and living, semi-permanently, without human contact when he died.

It's unclear whether prison administrators knew about Phillips' letter to his mother at the time they were written but what is clear is that Phillips, had he been housed alone, wouldn't have been able to kill someone so easily one month after he announced his homicidal feelings.

And, he wouldn't have been living an existence so devoid of social interaction that he would add to the prison's body count by taking his own life.

Failing to put a dangerous person into segregation happens all the time. What some might describe as mercy is really a disservice to a prisoner who needs some time alone.

Three of my sixty-eight days in segregation were spent there under investigation after my roommate hit me. It was barely a tap - totally uncharacteristic of her since she was serving time for stabbing another woman in the chest - but I reported her because I wanted her out of my cell. I couldn't sleep with her in the room.

Even though she hit me, I went to solitary confinement. While I languished in isolation, she was moved to another housing unit where she sexually assaulted two women; state troopers came to the prison to charge her.

She eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor breach of peace charges which extended her sentence only slightly. Despite that lack of consequence, she ended up spending the last several months of her time in segregation, months that could have been traded for days if she had been put on ice after she hit me. She recidivated and came back to prison while I was still there. She still goes back since I've left.

The why's of my former cellmate's life of crime are plentiful and still elusive - she's inherently violent, she's mentally ill, her time in prison and segregation made her worse. But her victims are readily identifiable and wouldn't need an apology if solitary confinement was used judiciously, in a limited fashion, as an intervention and not a long-term penalty.

It's unsurprising that this phenomenon plays out in solitary confinement and prison discipline; it's happening in criminal justice as a whole. And Phillips' past proves the principle perfectly.

After a traumatic childhood, Phillips' early misbehavior was swept under his All-Star status and he was barely held accountable for dragging a woman down a flight of stairs while at the University of Nebraska. At the time of his death, he was serving a 31-year sentence for driving his car into a group of teenagers and abusing his ex-girlfriend, all preventable acts if someone had reacted to Phillips earlier on, and maybe incarcerated him for three months instead of three decades.

If Lawrence Phillips leaves any legacy after he's buried, it should be the lesson that the preventative should replace the punitive. We can prevent tragedies if we get over our infatuation with avenging them after they happen.