How to Kill “the Monster in Our National Basement”—a Proposal

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.

Detention Centres, Solitary Confinement. Credit publik15 via Flickr http://bit.ly/2v2Yf8F

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.

Dix-Dorothea-LOC
Dorothea Dix
Among the most publicized has been then-President Obama’s executive order in January 2016 to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons. The facts, however, virtually neutralize the order’s headline appeal. How many juveniles reside in the federal penal system? Fewer than thirty, according to a survey conducted by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors criminal justice. This is in contrast to the system’s total population of 197,000). https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/01/27/there-are-practically-no-juveniles-in-federal-prison-here-s-why#.lRlqKK4Kv

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.

USGS Rikers Island
Rikers Island By U.S. Geological Survey, conversion to PNG by uploader (Herr Satz). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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).

Kalief Browder. Credit Zach Gross

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:

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-1993-2015

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-learned-how-to-commit-suicide-on-rikers

 

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 group Solitary 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.”

Solitary Watch continued: “As our fact sheet on the issue of cost points out, solitary confinement routinely costs more. One estimate put the average difference at as much as $50,000 a year, per-individual.” http://solitarywatch.com/2016/01/08/california-expects-to-save-28-million-by-reducing-solitary-confinement/

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.

Leahy2009
Patrick Leahy By Senate Judiciary Committee (http://judiciary.senate.gov/about/images/Leahy.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

113th Congress Official Photo of Rep. Tim Murphy
Timothy F. Murphy By Timmurphy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

 

Joe Kennedy, Official Portrait, 113th Congress
Joe Kennedy III via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Marcykaptur
Marcy Kaptur By Online Guide to House Members and Senators (Online Guide to House Members and Senators) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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:

https://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/democrac/15.htm

I will continue my discussion on solitary confinement when I return from a brief vacation. Please feel free to repost this.