August 21, 2011

DOZENS OF INMATES at California’s Pelican Bay facility went on hunger strikes for several weeks this summer for what seemed like pitifully modest demands: “Allow one photo per year. Allow one phone call per week. Allow wall calendars.”

What would prompt such drastic measures in the quest for such modest goals? Answer: The protest was an exasperated and understandable reaction to the invisible brutality that is solitary confinement. Some of the Pelican Bay inmates have been held in “security housing units” for years; those tagged as gang members can expect to stay there for six years, with no certainty that they will be reintegrated into the general population even if they renounce gang membership.

When an inmate is holed up alone in a cell for up to 23 hours a day with no meaningful human contact, a photograph of a loved one or a weekly telephone call can help to forge a connection with the outside world. With little or no exposure to natural light, a calendar can help forestall losing all track of time, all sense of reality. These simple privileges, in short, can help ward off insanity.

California prison officials accepted some of the inmates’ demands. But the concessions are minor. Elimination of the prolonged use of this tool is the better option.

At any given time, 25,000 to 100,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement throughout the nation. Contrary to popular belief, these inmates are often not the “worst of the worst”; some are in solitary confinement to separate them from fellow gang members. While in solitary, most are kept from participating in group educational programs or counseling sessions.

Short periods of isolation are unlikely to cause serious or permanent damage. But stays of months or years can trigger psychosis and debilitating depression. Inmates kept in solitary confinement for long periods also display higher levels of hostility than those in the general prison population and tend to carry this hostility with them after they are returned to the prison population at large or released back into the community.

There may be times when segregating an inmate is necessary for the safety of others or to protect the inmate. Keeping an inmate away from the general population may at times be appropriate discipline. Such an approach may be required in extraordinary cases to prevent convicted terrorists or gang leaders from devising plots or communicating with comrades.

But solitary confinement costs roughly twice as much as housing in less restrictive conditions — an expense that California and other fiscally challenged states can’t afford. Subjecting the average prisoner to the trauma of prolonged solitary confinement is inhumane. It comes perilously close to the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality that has been long discredited as a legitimate prison management tool.