Prison reform

  • September 11, 2015

    by Paul Guequierre

    Solitary confinement has been described as a living death. Jack Henry Abbot said about the practice: “Time descends in your cell like the lid of a coffin in which you lie and watch it as it slowly closes over you. When you neither move nor think in your cell, you are awash in pure nothingness. . . . Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”

    Solitary confinement, the topic of a new Issue Brief by law professor Laura Rovner released today by ACS, is viewed by much of the developed world as torture. The international community has almost universally condemned the use of long-term isolation. In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) and the Convention Against Torture, and declared that the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. So why then, is use of the practice so rampant in the United States? The good news is it’s gaining renewed scrutiny in the court of public opinion. The question is: How will federal courts respond?

    As long ago as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court criticized the use of solitary confinement. Justice Samuel Miller, who was a physician as well as a lawyer, observed that: “A considerable number of the prisoners [subjected to solitary confinement] fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

    And as recently as this year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the practice, practically asking for a solitary confinement case, saying: “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.

  • May 11, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    At Jacobin, Alex Elkins investigates the origins of racist policing practices such as stop-and-frisk in urban America.

    Andrew Cohen writes at The Marshall Project that a new project shows that cost of holding elderly prisoners is incredibly high. 

    Thom Hartmann takes a look at how the privatization of prisons contributed to mass incarceration at Salon

    At Vox​, Ezra Klein ​considers how the United States is failing to support mothers on a variety of issues.

    Peter Beinhart argues in The Atlantic ​that reporters should hold major political donors to the same level scrutiny as the candidates. 

  • January 13, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Doug Kendall writes in The Huffington Post that comments made by Governor Scott Walker reveal the faulty basis of King v. Burwell.

    In The Nation, Dani McClain argues that there a positive signs for women’s health despite the latest legislative efforts by Congressional Republicans.

    Adam Liptak of The New York Times reports on the recent oral arguments in a Supreme Court case that looks at an ordinance that placed differing restrictions on political, ideological, and informational signs.

    At the blog for the ACLU, Ian S. Thompson discusses the Department of Justice’s new memorandum that solidifies transgender rights protection.

    Alysia Santo writes for The Marshall Project about how discussion of prison reform has not led to significant action.

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that more “African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.


  • June 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel coordinating the Initiative, and is incoming Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

    Elderly prisoners are the least dangerous group of people behind bars but the most expensive to incarcerate. Yet despite this truth, the number of elderly prisoners is skyrocketing. Harsher sentencesfor less serious crimes – one defining characteristic of our failed “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies – are responsible for this staggering increase in the number of older prisoners, and taxpayers are taking the hit.

    You may be shocked to learn how much money states are dumping into housing aging prisoners who pose little safety risk. Today the American Civil Liberties Union released a report, “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” which details the growth of our aging prisoner population, the low public safety threat elderly prisoners pose and the fiscal impact of incarcerating them. Strikingly, the report estimates that the average aging prisoner costs taxpayers about twice as much as the average prisoner.

    The report is co-authored by the ACLU’s fiscal policy analyst and in-house economist, Will Bunting. He conducted a fiscal impact analysis, weighing the cost of incarcerating the average aging prisoner against the burden releasing that same prisoner would impose on public benefit programs. Even taking into consideration the cost of state payments for Medicaid, supplemental security food stamps, energy assistance, and other public assistance benefits, the report estimates that states could save $66,000 per year for each aging person released from prison. To put this number in context, the average American household makes $40,000. The money thus saved could be redistributed to more worthwhile and cost-effective state goals like education and infrastructure.

    A look at the grander scheme of things is even more startling: in 1988, the United States spent about $11 billion on the entire corrections system. Today, we spend about $16 billion annually on the aging prisoner population alone.