Prisons should abolish long-term solitary confinement.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

MANY ARE KEPT in their cells for at least 23 hours a day with minimal contact with other people, including guards. Food is delivered through a slit in the door, and most are prohibited from attending classes or counseling sessions with other inmates.

They are not, by and large, the "worst of the worst" -- mass murderers or psychopaths in the mold of Hannibal Lecter. They are, instead, men and women serving time for all manner of offenses, some of them relatively minor. But they have been deemed disciplinary problems -- or potential disciplinary problems -- by prison staffers. And so they find themselves locked up in what is commonly known as solitary confinement, sometimes for months, sometimes for years and sometimes with devastating consequences.

At one time shunned in the United States, solitary confinement is becoming a tool increasingly used by corrections officials trying desperately to keep order in grossly overcrowded and sometimes chaotic prisons. These decisions are made even though solitary confinement costs roughly twice as much as keeping an inmate in the general prison population. At any given time, experts estimate that 25,000 to 100,000 prisoners are kept in some sort of "special housing unit" where they are isolated and kept apart from the general prison population. The number changes frequently as new prisoners are sent in and others sent out of solitary. The federal "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo., home to al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, houses some 480 inmates in the federal version of solitary confinement.

A short stint in solitary for most does not result in serious or permanent harm. But more prolonged stays of months or years -- a practice not uncommon in many states -- can result in devastating psychological damage, including psychosis and debilitating depression. Studies have also shown that inmates kept in solitary confinement for prolonged periods display higher levels of hostility than those in the general prison population; they tend to carry this hostility with them after they are returned to the general prison population or released back into the community.

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, estimates that some 30 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from serious mental illness -- at least some of it entirely induced by the isolation. Sometimes the only justification given for sending an inmate to solitary confinement is the desire to separate him from fellow gang members.

Placing an out-of-control inmate in solitary confinement for a short period may sometimes be necessary -- for his own good and for that of other inmates. And special precautions must be taken to prevent convicted terrorists imprisoned in the same facility from orchestrating plots and communicating with cohorts on the outside.

But there is rarely any justification for holding what is essentially an average prisoner in solitary confinement for months, let alone years. Such a practice is cruel and counterproductive and should be abolished.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company