A front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times, “Rethinking Solitary Confinement,” takes a critical and searching look at the growing phenomenon of holding prisoners in long-term isolation. The article not only recaps the history of solitary confinement in the United States and describes its devastating psychological consequences; it also stresses the strong causal link between the nation’s mass incarceration binge and its increasing reliance on solitary over the past two decades. The failed 40-year war on drugs, combined with mandatory minimum sentences, led first to massive over-incarceration and overcrowding, and then inexorably to increasing reliance on solitary as a security measure. Where solitary had once been seen as a measure of last resort—a means of controlling a tiny handful of the most dangerous prisoners, “the worst of the worst”—harried prison officials, overwhelmed by wildly ballooning prison populations, began to lock down any prisoner who posed a management problem. Today, there are at least 80,000 prisoners, and probably thousands more, in solitary—some for days or weeks, others for years or even decades.
The explosion in the number of prisoners in solitary is a particularly toxic consequence of the nation’s addiction to incarceration. The Times article reinforces what the ACLU and other human rights activists have long said: locking down prisoners in long term isolation, denying them human contact, and subjecting them to total sensory deprivation is not only barbarously cruel, it’s also counter-productive—it makes prisons more dangerous, not safer. It causes mental illness in once-healthy prisoners, and plunges those with existing mental illness into profound psychosis from which they may never recover.
But the article shows that there’s good reason now to believe we are at a turning point: cash-strapped states, staggering under the massive fiscal burden of lock-’em-up policies run amok—and realizing the shockingly high price-tag of supermax confinement—are beginning to look for alternatives to solitary. They are finding a new model for reform in Mississippi, of all unlikely places.
In Mississippi, a successful ACLU lawsuit challenging the use of solitary confinement in the notorious Unit 32 supermax facility prompted a profound change of heart in the state’s top prison officials and led to far-reaching policy changes. Mississippi’s corrections commissioner explains that he found his views changing as he fought the ACLU lawsuit; he “started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible” since “that was the culture, and I was part of it”; but by the end of the process he realized that “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.” He made the extraordinary decision to radically change course during the summer of 2007, following months of increasingly lethal violence and unrest. For the first time, officials began cautiously letting groups of prisoners out of their cells. Within a few months, officials had moved the great majority of prisoners out of solitary. And then something remarkable happened: violence plummeted. In 2010 the state had no more need for a supermax prison, and Unit 32 was permanently shuttered.
The Times article explains that the transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for the growing number of states that are rethinking the use of isolation and re-evaluating how many prisoners really require it, and for how long. With Mississippi dramatically decreasing its use of solitary confinement, and Maine and Colorado on track to do the same, momentum is building for this cruel practice to end.
It was the states’ mad infatuation with incarceration that led to the explosion of solitary confinement; mass incarceration and solitary confinement are both expressions of the increasingly discredited theory that society is safer the more people we lock up, and the more tightly and harshly we lock them up. The Mississippi model has helped demonstrate that the opposite is true. We need to spread that message around the nation, and Mississippi’s experience in ending reliance on solitary presents us with an important teachable moment.
The ACLU is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.