THE BLOG
01/28/2016 04:34 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Labor Unions Should Heed Obama's Call to Reform Solitary Confinement

Sabrina Dalbesio via Getty Images

Correctional officers and their unions need to join the growing chorus to shut down solitary confinement in the U.S., not only to get on the right side of one of the major human rights issues of our day, but to address the long overdue subject of the well-being of workers in U.S. prisons and jails.

New bold actions by unions calling for an end to the torture of solitary confinement would embody what unions stand for in the first place -- respecting the dignity of the human person. The dignity of workers and those who are incarcerated alike are trampled by the over-reliance on solitary confinement.

There is a growing, multi-faceted human dignity movement to close down the torture of solitary confinement in the U.S. Driving it are conservatives and liberals, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, faith leaders, enlightened political leaders, and the heads of state prison systems and jails themselves.

Civil rights and civic organizations, as well as a broad spectrum of respected think tanks and opinion leaders are calling for reforms in solitary confinement. And now, President Obama, who first noted in a speech in July 2015 that solitary confinement makes no sense, just released, through his Department of Justice, the "Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing." This report includes more than fifty "Guiding Principles" for addressing the use of solitary confinement within all correctional systems in the U.S., as well as new policies for the federal prison system.

So widespread is the consensus that is building, that it is time to ask: Where are the corrections officers and their unions and why are they, for the most part, the last to see that this benefits workers as much as it benefits those held in solitary confinement?

Ironically, an AFSCME union local in Texas was a proponent of solitary confinement reform well before President Obama caught hold of the issue. In early 2014, when solitary confinement reforms were being implemented across the country, Lance Lowry, President of AFSCME Local 3807, wrote a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice asking them to scale back the use of solitary confinement on death row and allow low-risk individuals time out of cell and more interaction with others. His reasoning? That it would "positively impact both the correctional staff and offenders on Texas death row."

As it turns out, reducing solitary confinement is not just the right thing to do, it's good for staff wellness. With the full support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, in less than two years Commissioner Joseph Ponte has reduced the population in solitary confinement at New York City's Rikers Island jail from 611 to 142. Commissioner Ponte has also launched aggressive new staff training and staff wellness components at Rikers. State prison systems in Colorado and New Mexico, taking action to release incarcerated people from solitary confinement and minimize its use, report that once-skeptical staff are now buying into the reforms, and supporting them because they work for everyone. Management is way ahead of the unions on caring for staff wellness, and no one currently seeking to reduce solitary confinement in state institutions or jails sees the safety of their workforce as secondary to their cause.

Reforms underway in places like Rikers Island jail in New York City, in the state prison systems in Colorado and New Mexico, and elsewhere are creating a growing body of evidence that reducing the overreliance on solitary confinement has tremendous benefits for staff well-being. Leaders like Gregg Marcantel, head of the New Mexico state prison system, are moving forward knowing that they are on the right track. By allowing mostly low-risk inmates to earn their way out of solitary, New Mexico has cut the solitary confinement population from 10 percent of the state prison population to under 6 percent. Both the ACLU and prison officials say there has been no measurable increase in violence in New Mexico prisons, and that prison conditions have improved.

In Colorado, the results are even more striking. There, reforms began in 2011, when more than 1,500, or roughly 7 percent of the state prison population, languished in solitary confinement. By combining administrative reforms with a new Residential Treatment Program to transition those with serious mental illnesses out, less than 1 percent of those incarcerated are now in solitary confinement in Colorado. And, Rick Raemisch, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, frequently cites growing correctional officer support for the reforms, with the numbers to back him up. The rate of assaults on staff are now half of what they were in 2006.

Four ethical considerations can guide the thinking of correctional officers:

  1. The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is a better set of values than the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" mentality that too often has been the hard shell corrections officers build around themselves to survive in one of the toughest work environments there is. True, the case for more solitary confinement often rests on how these are the "worst of the worst." In fact, very few of those in solitary confinement are there for an act of violence in the prison. Corrections officers on the front lines should take a stand against the ethics of retribution and a stand for prisons shaped by accountability and rehabilitation.
  2. The massive warehousing of human beings in solitary confinement has got to end (there are approximately 100,000 on any given day in U.S. prisons, though the number is much higher when counting jails and detention centers). For too long corrections officers have been made daily witnesses to torture. This violates not only the human rights of those serving sentences, but also the sacred principle of work as vocation for jail and prison staff. The spiritual, physical and mental toll of solitary confinement in prisons on workers can no longer be tolerated by society. Both those incarcerated and staff suffer the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the same higher incidence of suicide and violence, and the same permanent psychological damage. For correctional officers, they take these problems home with them, doing harm to themselves and their families. For those in solitary confinement, they often inflict the damage on themselves, isolated and alone. Suicides are high in both groups. God did not create humans to endure this kind of treatment, and it is harmful to prisons, communities, and families.
  3. Cell extractions, a routine procedure needed to move those with the deteriorating mental illness that characterizes everyone who is in solitary over time, puts worker safety at risk. The physical deterioration of inmates and workers in U.S. prisons is well documented. Talk to any correctional officer and he or she will tell you they age before their time, and don't live long past retirement age. The same is true for those who have been incarcerated. Though acts of violence against corrections officers are serious and are often lifted up as a reason to keep everyone in solitary, the far greater risk to workers is to continue down the current path.
  4. Problems that have been largely ignored by society, most notably the lack of community services for the mentally ill, have been kicked down the road to correctional officers in the nation's solitary confinement wings and in prisons in general. Even so, correctional officers and their unions are pledged to do their part for community safety. One of the things that compelled President Obama to act was the recognition that releasing incarcerated individuals directly from the torture of solitary confinement to the streets was widespread in the U.S. National Public Radio recently reported that of the 24 states that keep records on solitary confinement, 10,000 people were released directly from solitary confinement into the streets in 2014. That's 10,000 people who went directly from conditions of torture - 23 hours a day locked in a tiny cell, with no human contact and near total sensory deprivation - to being released directly to the streets upon serving their time. Union families live in these communities, as do others. This makes the larger case for rehabilitation being the goal for every U.S. jail and prison, but given the known psychological trauma of solitary confinement, it is even more poignant.

Faith leaders have a long-stated common understanding that there is absolutely no moral or practical justification for the torture of another human being. Pope Francis recently said that "torture is a sin against humanity," and he has said that the extreme isolation of high security prisons is a form of torture.

U.S. religious groups from conservatives to liberals - the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Catholic Bishops (in a 2000 pastoral statement Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration), and virtually all others - have given strong support for over decades for broad criminal justice reform. Most understand that ending the torture of solitary confinement is a key component of this reform. This pastoral concern of faith bodies extends equally to those incarcerated and to those who work in our prisons and jails. It's time for corrections officers and their unions to join this consensus and get to work on helping to end the mutually assured destruction of solitary confinement in our jails and prisons.

Rev. Ron Stief is Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and formerly the Minister for Labor and the Director of the Washington DC Office of the United Church of Christ (1998-2008). He was a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (now BMWED-IBT Teamsters) for 4 years before embarking into the ministry.

Photo courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP