Hope for Those Suffering in Solitary Confinement

By Danica Bird, Vol. 21 Student Writer 

In a time when it seems the pendulum of civil rights wins and loses is in a downswing, there is a small bit of hope in the area of prison reform. The past few years have seen an increase in interest in the use of long-term solitary confinement in United States prisons. Powerful actors in the United States government actually seem to be open to this reform at the state and federal level, providing some hope for prison reform advocates. Solitary confinement is one of the darkest and most detrimental experiences a government can employ against its own citizens, short of pure torture. It is reassuring that this powerful movement to end its abuse has begun, but there is still so much more to be done.

Solitary confinement has been defined by Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, as the isolation of a prisoner from anyone other than his guards for more than 22 hours of the day. Solitary confinement in the United States can consist of 22-24 hours of isolation in a windowless cell no bigger than a parking spot. Prisoners’ accounts of their time in solitary confinement make for harrowing stories of the anguish they suffer both physically and mentally. Prisoners feel like they no longer exist in terms of the outside world due to their very limited contact with other people, let alone their loved ones on the outside. They suffer from severe depression akin to terminally ill patients and commit suicide at five to ten times more often than prisoners in the general population. They also suffer physically because they have such limited space in which to move around. Additionally, there is an increased risk of blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and stroke among many other health concerns.

It would be so easy to forget the stories of prisoners in solitary, or to never hear their stories in the first place. Many prisoners report that their mail disappears in the facility, both in-coming and out-going so that those who wish to tell their story find it impossible. However, there are a few powerful actors who are willing to listen.

Rick Raemisch, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, is a leading proponent of progressive change when it comes to the implementation of solitary confinement. Mr. Raemisch was appointed as the executive director in 2010 by the Governor of Colorado after his predecessor was killed by an inmate who had been released directly from solitary confinement. He understands why prohibition of long-term solitary confinement keeps prisoners and the public safe. Mr. Raemisch has worked to lower the amount of time prisoners spent in solitary confinement since 2010. In 2011, there were 1,500 men in solitary confinement in the Colorado prison system. In early 2017, it was down to 160. Raemisch has also worked with the U.N. to modernize the Nelson Mandela Rules that govern the treatment of prisoners internationally.

Another reason to hope for change can be found in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence in the 2015 Supreme Court case, Davis v. Ayala. Justice Kennedy, while fully agreeing with the outcome and reasoning of the majority, brought up the conditions of solitary confinement in the United State virtually sua sponte. The case, dealing with the issue of racial bias during the jury selection of a death row inmate’s trial, did not have anything to do with solitary confinement. Justice Kennedy wrote his concurrence based on the prisoner’s attorney’s brief answer to a question during oral argument that mentioned that the prisoner had been in solitary confinement for twenty years. Justice Kennedy acknowledge the detrimental effect that such isolation can have on a person and suggested that if the proper case came before the Court, the Court should decide whether other “workable alternative systems” should be implemented in the place of long-term solitary confinement.

The United States seems open to change, here. However, in the years since Justice Kennedy’s concurrence there has been little movement toward abolishing the practice of long-term solitary confinement in federal prisons. The Department of Justice under President Obama published a report and recommendations regarding solitary confinement in 2016, but there has been slow progress on the federal level. There is hope, but there is still a long way to go before abolishment of long-term solitary confinement altogether.

 

Sources:

U.N. Special Rapporteur for Torture, Solitary Confinement Should Be Banned In Most Cases, U.N. Expert Says (Oct. 18, 2011), https://news.un.org/en/story/2011/10/392012-solitary-confinement-should-....

Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2208–2210 (2015) (J. Kennedy concurring).

Nathaniel Penn, Buried Alive: Stories from Inside Solitary Confinement, GQ, Mar. 2, 2017, https://www.gq.com/story/buried-alive-solitary-confinement/amp.

Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing, U.S. Dept of Justice Final Report, Jan. 2016, https://www.justice.gov/archives/dag/file/815551/download.