"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

California Agrees to Overhaul Use of Solitary Confinement

LOS ANGELES — California has agreed to an overhaul of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons, including strict limits on the prolonged isolation of inmates, as part of a landmark legal settlement filed in federal court on Tuesday.

The settlement is expected to sharply reduce the number of inmates held in the state’s isolation units, where nearly 3,000 inmates are often kept alone for more than 22 hours a day in cells that sometimes have no windows, and cap the length of time prisoners can spend there. Prison reform advocates say they hope the settlement will serve as a model for other states.

Prison officials have used solitary confinement to separate prisoners who they say are too dangerous to house with the general population, either because they have been violent in prison or because they have been identified as gang members. Many such prisoners are left in solitary confinement indefinitely, with severe psychological effects; over the years, hundreds have spent more than a decade in isolation.

But President Obama, who in July became the first president to visit a federal prison, has questioned solitary confinement, as has Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court. Craig Haney, a psychologist who studied the effects of isolation on prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California — the prisoners at the heart of this settlement — used the term “social death” to describe the impact on their psyche.

A number of corrections officials across the country are also coming to see locking up inmates for years at a time as ineffective. Some human rights groups have assailed it as torture, and tens of thousands of inmates across California have participated in hunger strikes since 2011 to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement.

“This brings California in line with more modern national prison practices,” said Jules Lobel, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who was the lead lawyer for the inmates in their suit against the state. “People have been kept in solitary confinement for outrageously long periods of time. That’s one of the problems in the U.S. — people are warehoused in these places, and now that’s going to change.”

Under the settlement, prisoners will no longer be sent to isolation indefinitely. And gang members will no longer be sent to solitary confinement based solely on their gang affiliation; only inmates found guilty of serious prison infractions like violence, weapons, narcotics possession or escape will be sent to isolation.


Source: The New York Times, Ian Lovett, Sept. 1, 2015


Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

Few social scientists question that isolation can have harmful effects. Research over the last half-century has demonstrated that it can worsen mental illness and produce symptoms even in prisoners who start out psychologically robust.

But most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”

Sealed for years in a hermetic environment — one inmate likened the prison’s solitary confinement unit to “a weapons lab or a place for human experiments” — prisoners recounted struggling daily to maintain their sanity. They spoke of longing to catch sight of a tree or a bird. Many responded to their isolation by shutting down their emotions and withdrawing even further, shunning even the meager human conversation and company they were afforded.

“If you put a parakeet in a cage for years and you take it out, it will die,” one older prisoner said. “So I stay in my cage.”


Source: The New York Times, Erica Goode, August 3, 2015

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