“No matter the circumstances, what happened on Friday night is a tragedy, and I expect this investigation to be handled swiftly and transparently for the sake of everyone involved.” –Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall last Sunday, two days after the autistic 13-Linden Cameron was shot several times by a city police officer. Linden remains in serious condition.
The leading Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have at long last agreed that abolishing this atrocity is an essential part of criminal-justice reform. It is up to us to hold them to their words.
When you hear or read the words “solitary confinement,” what images form in your mind?
A naughty inmate spending some time in a kind of “time out” space wearing a hang-dog expression?
A lonely prisoner in a tiny dark cell gazing at light from the slit of a window, with maybe half a bowl of dirty drinking water at his feet?
A mentally ill man who, after 112 consecutive days of solitary, has just severed his penis with a razor and flushed it down his cell’s toilet?
One of these things is not like the others.
All three images are rooted in the dark dominion of solitary confinement. Only one of them burns through the fog of euphemism and forces a reckoning with a terrible truth—in this case, one of the most perverse, destructive, and unnecessary varieties of soul-murder yet devised by man.
The topic “solitary confinement” has been raised lately (and gingerly, and fleetingly) by several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: raised as an agenda item in their calls for repairing the fissures in America’s criminal-justice system. (Criminal-justice reform is tightly intertwined with reform of our negligent systems of mental healthcare in America.)
The candidates have in turn been influenced—inspired—by the efforts of a bright new coalition of mental-health reform advocates: parents, mostly, spurred to action by the death or deep psychosis of a beloved child. Polite yet unyielding, ferociously informed, they amount to a neo-Dorothea Dix approach to getting justice for the dispossessed.
Iowa is their perfectly chosen beachhead. Not only does the state offer an early concentration of corndog-chewing candidates for them to buttonhole. Iowa City is the home of the turbo-charged advocacy team of Scott and Leslie Carpenter. Armed with an exhaustive five-point bill of particulars for mental healthcare reform compiled by the California advocate DeDe Moon Ranahan, the Carpenters essentially have brought the grass roots onto equal footing with the political elite—on this issue, at least.
But why shine the spotlight on solitary confinement when the justice reform agendas are crowded with so many other “big-ticket” demands? Cutting the U.S. prison population in half comes to mind, as do ending the notorious “cash bail” system that keeps poor young inmates locked up only because they can’t afford otherwise; or tightening up on police oversight; or legalizing marijuana; or abolishing private prisons.
Here is the reason: I sense that of all these important, difficult-to-achieve goals, the abolishing of solitary is among the easiest to bring up and then dismiss: the one most vulnerable to lip service.
And that would be a colossal shame. Stuffing sentient human beings into small, dark, fetid enclosures and leaving them there is about the worst thing it is possible to do to one’s fellow man. The American record for duration in solitary was held by a triple murderer named Thomas Silverstein, who died just last May at age 67. He’d spent more than half his life in isolation.
It borders on the impossible to find shared humanity with a monster like Silverstein. Yet traces of his humanity struggle to declare themselves like green shoots through cracked pavement. “It’s almost more humane to kill someone immediately than it is to intentionally bury a man alive,” he wrote. For one superb writer’s searching attempt, read Pete Earley’s masterful 1992 book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.
Or return for a moment to the lost soul who severed his penis with a razor. That would be the mentally ill inmate identified by his initials, J.I., a solitary inmate at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the night of September 2018, jail guards, alerted by prisoners’ shouting in a lockdown unit, rushed to the scene, where they beheld J.I., his hands and forearms bloody, who told them: “I have a real medical emergency. I just cut my penis off and flushed it down the toilet. I have no need for it anymore.”
J.I., who survived, had sat in solitary for 112 consecutive days. He’d been sent there for yelling at staff members. Records showed that guards had been negligent in monitoring his therapeutic needs. 1
Solitary is patently barbaric; bereft of any use (other than convenience and a lust for inflicting psychic pain). It is a legalized yet likely unconstitutional torture which, I have come to believe, is slightly more heinous even than the death penalty: its victims, while not dead, experience death as their own observers, existing in claustrophobic isolation and silence and darkness and decay, with no definable release awaiting them.
And so in order to tolerate it as public policy or even as a thought, some self-anesthetizing helps. (Those charged with actually imposing it on human beings presumably develop tougher psychic scar tissue.) “Solitary confinement” is a term useful for the necessary numbing: an abstraction, one of those “Orwellian” constructions that serve more to camouflage than to evoke their full, and usually terrifying implications.
That very abstraction is dangerous. It can too easily lead to evaporation.
This blog, then, is a plea to those presidential candidates who have made the abolition of solitary confinement a part of their criminal-justice reform demands: Do not let this happen. Honor the constituency that has materialized in Iowa and exists throughout the nation. Keep this issue alive.
In subsequent blogs I will trace the peculiar origins of solitary confinement in America, and will look into some of the lesser-known forms of its use—for example, as an instrument of control for juvenile inmates and even schoolchildren.
I will close this blog with a soaring testimony of hope, resilience, faith, and self-reclamation written by a former criminal and solitary inmate named Thomas Tarrants, and published in the August 19 edition of Christianity Today.2 It was sent to me by my friend, the literary scholar Harold K. Bush of St. Louis University. Thank you, amigo.
In my previous blog, I called for the abolishment of solitary confinement—“the monster in our national basement”–throughout America’s jails and prisons. I left the question open as to how this might be accomplished.
I see one route, and one route only, toward this essential and long-overdue reform: enactment of a federal law that categorically bans solitary confinement in all federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and detention centers. The law would establish strong felony charges (I would stop short of solitary confinement) for wardens and guards who violate it.
The congressional bill calling for total abolishment should be bipartisan, and should be buttressed by as many signatories as possible.
The law should have a name, of course. I propose the Dorothea Dix Humanity Toward Prisoners Act.
I will enlarge on this remedy and its possible champions later in this essay.
It is true that recent years have seen several initiatives to curtail solitary confinement, which currently encages 80,000 to 100,000 American prisoners and inmates on a given day. They are well intentioned half-measures, and they are doomed to meaninglessness and failure. Half-measures will never be enough to eradicate this evil.
Nearly all juvenile offenders are sent to state prisons, or to local jails. Most of these are pre-trial detainees, trapped behind bars as they await trials that may be weeks, months, or years in the future.
A scandalous eighty-five percent of adolescents at the dreadful Rikers Island in New York—from a population that often approaches ten thousand daily—are pretrial detainees, most of whom simply cannot afford to pay bail for charges of petty crimes. Although this form of detention has been frequently challenged on constitutional grounds, it persists, with these young captives enjoying the same rights as convicted prisoners: the right to be separated indefinitely from their families; the right to be beaten and slashed by guards and fellow inmates; the right to kill themselves; and, of course, the right to solitary confinement and descent into madness (if they are not mad already, as twenty percent of the Rikers population typically is).
The single most notorious and crushing example of this, which I treat on pp. 150-151 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, is the post-incarceration suicide of Kalief Browder, a promising young African-American man falsely accused of a crime and then packed off to Rikers for three years, two of which he spent in solitary, before being released. Browder was the subject of two piercing essays by Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker, linked below:
Few jails in America, or in history, are as dangerous to their inmates as Rikers. When guards manage to intervene in a suicide attempt, for instance, they often follow up by beating the inmate until his blood and urine flow. (To give credit where it is due, Mayor DeBlasio announced in 2014 that he had a plan to close Rikers. The plan would take ten years to implement. That’s nice. Maybe then he can start helping out on Guantanamo.) Across America, and with varying degrees of official brutality, the young, the mentally ill, and the un-tried are largely at the mercy of inept, negligent, or actively repressive wardens and jailers. As I wrote in my previous blog: “[O]ur state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.”
Endemic in the United States, solitary confinement appears indifferent to a region’s general political values. It is the Monster Who Will Not Die—at least not until a stake is driven through its heart. Half-measures do not contemplate the stake. The federal government must.
California prides itself as being among the most progressive of states; yet it has ranked among the most promiscuous in the matter of bulldozing prisoners off for long stretches in “the Hole.” In the state’s charmingly named Pelican Bay State Prison alone, more than 500 prisoners had been held in solitary for more than 10 years, 78 of whom for more than 20. In all, the state held 9,870 prisoners in isolation in December 2012, when inmates, following the longest inmate hunger strike in California history to protest the practice, filed a prisoners’ lawsuit, Ashker vs. Governor. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/2015-09-01-Ashker-settlement-summary.pdf Supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the suit was settled in the prisoners’ favor—pretty much—in 2015. Settlement terms resulted in the trimming down to 3,471 solitary prisoners as of August 2016, a 65 percent reduction. It greatly reduced the number of long-term solitary captives as well.
Prison officials had long justified solitary by pointing out the high percentage of gang members in their system. Gang-bangers’ influence was considered toxic, and dangerous, within the general prison population.
California’s enforced curtailing of “the Hole” is admirable, even pivotal, as far as it goes. The specter of gang members in the general population has not yet produced chaos: prison administrators have been obliged to seek other remedies, and they have worked. And for the hard-nosed among us, who believe that jailbirds deserve everything they get, here is a hard-nosed fact that may sway them: wiping out solitary confinement saves taxpayers’ money.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016-2017 state budget stipulates a reduction of $28 million as a direct result of the jail and prison housing conversions.
As the nonprofit national watchdog groupSolitary Watch has reported, citing the state’s Department of Corrections figures:
“The cost reductions are unsurprising given the long-reported high cost of isolating individuals in California’s prisons. In 2010-11. . .it cost $70,641 annually to hold prisoners in the SHU [Security Housing Unit]. . .In contrast, [spent] an average of $58,324 on general population prisoners.”
All of this is admirable; a promising, if woefully belated, start to the fulfillment of Dorothea Dix’s noble dream.
And yet, it remains just that: a start. A good intention. A half-measure, given the history of what too often happens to good intentions. As 2015 ended, 5,378 men and 199 women in remained in various forms of solitary in California. That is 5,577 solitary inmates too many.
The most promising—well, half-measure—was introduced last October. Five Democratic senators brought out a bill called the Solitary Reform Act (S. 3432), which would restrict solitary confinement for all federal prisoners, not just teenagers. The co-sponsors were Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Al Franken of Minnesota.
Once again: this proposal is enlightened as far as it goes, and in all likelihood reflects the senators’ understanding of the art of the possible, and its limitations. The legislation would free about ten thousand solitary inmates in federal prisons, roughly 6 percent of the total Yet it would not touch the oppression of the 70,000 people encaged in state prisons and county jails.
I believe that federal law must go much farther—all the way to the death of the monster in our national basement.
I believe that federal law must encompass not just federal prisons, but the very constitutionality of solitary confinement.
I believe its sponsors should be bipartisan. Surely they must not exclude the Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a trained child psychologist, who emerged last year as his party’s almost solitary champion of the mentally ill and their interests with his breakthrough CARES Act, which was incorporated into President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a doctrinaire conservative on many issues, has supported reform, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor.
Potential Democratic sponsors in addition to the five mentioned above might begin with the young Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who leapt into the headlines and television soundbites last March with his riveting and eloquent rebuke to Rep. Paul Ryan, who had called the (doomed) Republican replacement bill to Obamacare “an act of mercy.” “This is not an act of mercy, Kennedy snapped, after rattling off several tenets of the scripture. “It’s an act of malice.” Kennedy’s family, of course, has a long history of involvement in health care and mental-health care issues, and the Kennedy name on such a bill would give it great symbolic power.
Finally—for purposes of this short list, anyway—I have admired the progressive zeal and compassion of the longtime Ohio Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has been honored as a Legislator of the Year by the National Mental Health Association for her efforts in defending Medicaid funds for the mentally ill and for expanding insurance parity for such sufferers, and for initiatives to safeguard young people entering the juvenile justice system.
Any and all of these legislators would enhance the prospects of an eventual dispatching of the monster in our national basement.
I believe that such a law is especially urgent in these days of civic turmoil, street terror, collapse of faith in our institutions, widespread ignorance of or contempt for national traditions; even the irreducible dignity of our fellow human beings. Abolishing solitary confinement would do more than end an enduring national scourge. It would enshrine in history the crusade of the frail woman who concluded her timeless “Memorial” to the Massachusetts legislature back in 1843:
Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands. In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God.”
The full text of Dorothea Dix’s Memorial, with a brief explanatory, is here: