by Joseph Jerome
The ACLU’s Inimai Chettiar recently explained in an ACSblog post how downsizing our system of mass incarceration would be good for fairness, safety, and our wallets. Another benefit of shrinking our prison population is that it could also diminish our reliance on solitary confinement, which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has called “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Some corrections experts also make the case that the use of solitary confinement is costly, and not effective.
Currently, more than 25,000 prisoners are held in isolation in American supermax prisons across 44 states. Countless thousands more are kept in restrictive segregation units at a cost of two to three times more than conventional prison units.
According to some experts, an “exploding prison population” is to blame for the increased use of solitary confinement over the past three decades. “Unfortunately, too many inmates today fear for their lives and their safety,” the Cato Institute’s Roger Pilon explains. He concedes that the psychological well-being of prisoners in solitary confinement is a concern, but that “it must be balanced with a concern for the safety of other inmates.”
Others assert there is little empirical evidence that the use of solitary confinement improves prison safety. The ACLU has found that the “levels of violence in American prisons may have more to do with the way prisoners are treated and how prisons have been managed.” In fact, placing prisoners into solitary confinement may actually increase prison violence. As one prison psychologist told Human Rights Watch, “if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.”