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.

We Must Kill the Monster of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.

We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.

Cellule du quartier d'isolement de la prison Jacques-Cartier, à travers le judas, Rennes, France

Solitary confinement is just another tool, we assure ourselves. Like we assure ourselves that—oh—the AK-47 is just another appliance. Ethically neutral. Dangerous but necessary. Good to have around when you need it. Properly stored, properly maintained, properly et cetera.

Here is the difference between solitary confinement and the AK-47: solitary is worse. Solitary is inherently evil. Solitary has no utilitarian value. No economic value. No social-protection value. No ethical or moral value. Solitary has one consequence and one consequence only: the slow and torturous disintegration of the human mind.

Solitary confinement must be abolished in this country. Not “limited.” Not “scaled back.” Not “reviewed” or “studied.” Abolished. Dragged out of the basement and exterminated. Prohibited by federal law as cruel and unusual punishment. Crueler, if not more “unusual,” than waterboarding, which is brutish and unproductive, but brief, and usually without lasting destruction to the psyche.

Solitary confinement must be wiped out because of its very purity: it is the purest most unadulterated method of infesting a human brain with loneliness, then despair, then desperation, and finally with head-banging madness that the world has ever seen. Solitary confinement is a demon that feeds on human souls.

As it feeds, here is some of the residue that it leaves behind, to fester: Paranoia. Stupor. Amnesia. Hallucinations; imaginary shapes and voices. Rage. Suicidal impulses. (Half of all jail and prison suicides are committed in solitary or soon after release, though solitary inmates make up only 5 percent of these populations.)

Let’s pause here for a disquisition on what we mean when we say “solitary confinement”: small concrete cell, maybe 7 by 10 feet. Small bed and toilet or hole in floor for urination and defecation. Steel door with slot for sliding food in. Darkness.

End of disquisition.

If the public and its political leaders ignore this monster in the basement (or buffoonishly shrug it off  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/opinion/chris-christies-defense-of-solitary-confinement.html and https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/12/14/what-chris-christie-got-wrong-about-solitary-confinement#.HFGlWqlkR it isn’t because it’s a secret. Google “mental illness solitary confinement” and six hundred twenty-five thousand hits come up. They include thousands of studies, professional and academic, that overwhelmingly condemn the practice as a form of torture; as devastating to the brain; as falling below international standards of incarceration; unconstitutional; as an affront to decency.

A solitary confinement cell at the Cumberland County Jail, Portland (Joanna Walters)

The hits include newspaper and magazine journalism as well; and, occasionally, television. The most dignified journals sometimes season their reportage with language that would make an old-time yellow journalism copy editor blush. Here is the August British journal, The Guardian:

“After her son tore off his penis with his bare hands in his cell, Gemma Pena thought Florida’s prison authorities might see his illness,” began one such story, in the August Manchester Guardian. “They’d see he needed a hospital, instead of solitary confinement. The article continued:

“‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s when the nightmare really started.’

“As her son Kristopher has moved through Florida’s prison system; so has Pena, relocating around the state to stay close to him. Now she lives in a tiny one-room apartment in a run-down Miami neighborhood. There’s a bed, a small table, two chairs, and a little window. She keeps the door locked. She lives in a solitary confinement of her own.”

You may read the entire article via this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/03/solitary-confinement-mentally-ill-prisoners-florida

The New York Times has returned time and again to attacking the abhorrent practice with probing news stories and editorial commentary. Here are links to Times pieces in recent months and years:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/solitary-confinement-is-cruel-common-and-useless.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/solitary-confinement-is-cruel-common-and-useless.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/opinion/justice-kennedy-on-solitary-confinement.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/opinion/cruel-isolation-of-prisoners.html

Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross

A sampling of other journalism on the topic barely scratches the surface. In July 26, 2006, Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio produced a valuable timeline: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5579901

In 2009, the respected advocacy journalist Brooke Shelby Biggs, writing in the progressive bi-monthly Mother Jones, offered a social history of American solitary confinement. Her consummately researched essay should be reviewed by anyone interested in the subject.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/solitary-confinement-brief-natural-history/

Biggs reminded us, for instance, of the fact that “solitary” is not some primitive artifact of 14th-century “Bedlam Asylum.” It is a fairly recent demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, wrought by the most pacifistic religious order in the Western World. In 1790, the Society of Friends (the Quakers) completed work on the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia—the first edifice of the modern prison system. The Quakers conceived the newly evolving prison system as a vehicle not only for punishment but for spiritual rehabilitation. Hence “penitentiary,” denoting penitence. Solitary confinement was refined, at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, as the highest distillation of the penitent act. It was not long, though, before evidence began to show that these isolated souls, instead of discovering peace through reverence, were going mad.

Biggs writes:

“Eastern State was a grand failure, and it was closed in 1971, 100
years after the concept of total isolation was abandoned. But what it
revealed about the torturous effects of solitary may have made the
practice attractive to those less concerned with rehabilitation and
more interested in retribution. Solitary in the 20th century became a
purely punitive tool used to break the spirits of inmates considered
disruptive, violent, or disobedient. . .”

And that is more or less where things stand today.

In 2014, Pope Francis described such confinement as a form of torture. By the following year, more than 80,000 inmates, a high percentage of them already mad, were stored in solitary, more than in any other country. The numbers had been rising before that. From 1995 to 2000, the solitary confinement population in America increased by 40 percent.  These figures exclude juveniles, who comprise the most inexcusable of all solitary confinement populations—in jails, mostly, awaiting hearings and trials. Adolescent brains, even “healthy” ones, are in a final stage of development that leaves them vulnerable to disruption, especially that caused by stress. (see NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, pp. 34-38). If the “right”—that is, the wrong—genetic inheritance is present, this is the age when schizophrenia develops.

Well, then, if solitary is so awful, why do inmates and prisoners keep getting stored away there?

The most rational defense of the practice that I’ve found is protection: the protection of one prisoner from others that want to do harm to him or her. Or to protect other prisoners from one dangerously violent individual.

But what’s that, you say? Dangerously violent individuals deserve what they get? Let’s keep in mind that up to half of some prison populations suffer severe mental illness; that these illnesses are not treated during solitary (nor, too often, out of solitary either), and that this kind of caging deepens and even creates psychosis. Who benefits when such a brain-damaged entity is placed in, and finally allowed out of, this confinement?

And if “protection” is the rationale, why not simply create an additional regulation-sized and lighted cell or two for that purpose?

The second-most rational defense concerns “discipline.” In fact, this is the only other remotely rational defense.

But “discipline”—and its justifications—are in the eye of the jailer. Which is very bad news for the disciplined. The range of “justifications” is nearly endless, exotic, and often the product of a clueless or sadistic jail official.

Sure, there are “policies.” Good ones, often. In January 2016, President Obama issued executive orders to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons, with their total population of some 197,000. Yet our 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.

At these levels, little accountability exists to enforce the “policies” restricting solitary. In that breach, here is a tiny sampling of the reasons sending inmates into “the Box”:

To “teach a lesson.” To punish someone for “talking back.” For “failing to speak English when able.” To separate fighting inmates—seldom minding who was the aggressor. For refusing to attend church services. For trying to translate for another detainee. (These examples are taken from the Introduction to “Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, The New Press, February 2016, https://longreads.com/2016/02/09/a-brief-history-of-solitary-confinement/)

And often, for reasons unexplained: the mother of a young, psychotic inmate in Florida, with whom I have been communicating since last autumn, claims that her son has done stretches in solitary for as long as nine months. What possible offense could merit confinement in “the hole” for nine months? Florida, by the way, boasts—if that is the word—more than 12,000 isolated inmates: one-eighth of the total in America.

Angola Three event, Manchester Metropolitan University, November 2016 (05)
Albert Woodfox
Long stretches in the tight darkness such as this one seem impossible to believe—until you learn that that a man named Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther arrested for robbery in 1969, was released only in 2016, having served more than forty years in solitary. For those keeping score, this is a United States record.

I suspect a further reason, a reason that underlies the absurdist reasons listed above. I suspect it even though I find little empirical evidence to back me up. I suspect that wardens and guards throw prisoners into solitary out of fear. The same kind of fear that slave owners once harbored toward their slaves. And stemming from the same reasons.

Solitary confinement, in other words, is used to fight fear with fear.

Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.

We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.

In my next blog post, I will discuss what I believe is the only hope for exterminating the monster.

 

 

Another Solitary Confinement Atrocity

This horrific story, originally reported by the excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and picked up by Slate a couple days ago, is yet another demonstration of my assertion in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE that “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Terrill Thomas’s death by slow, deliberate, guard-induced dehydration while in solitary confinement at a Milwaukee County jail is an abomination, and a part of a larger national abomination. Our society must demand an end to solitary confinement!

Via Slate.com

Guards Who Left a Prisoner to Die of Dehydration, After Water Was Cut for Seven Days, Could Face Charges

Read the full story here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/04/24/guards_who_left_milwaukee_prisoner_to_die_of_dehydration_in_cell_could_face.html