Over-Reliance on Solitary Confinement Is Inhumane, Counterproductive to Public Safety

Mar 03, 2014 | Updated May 03, 2014

Rick Raemisch, the new executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, volunteered to do something few would dare -- he spent 20 hours in "Ad-Seg," or solitary confinement, in one of his own prisons. He did it to better understand the effects of our national over-reliance on solitary confinement as a means of managing inmates.

There are tens of thousands of prisoners held in isolation in the United States. Solitary confinement is a widely used tool for maintaining order and safety in prisons, and sometimes there are no viable alternatives to keep prisoners from harming themselves or others. But when a prisoner stays confined 23 hours a day, with little human contact or stimulation for extended periods, it "can exacerbate symptoms of illness or provoke recurrence," according to "The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law." And whenever prisoners are released directly from solitary confinement back into the community with no intervening steps, it spells trouble for public safety. This runs contrary to the stated goals of our correctional systems. In Raemisch's own words, "our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in."

The use of isolation is reaching a tipping point. Corrections officials, like those in New York who passed far-reaching reforms last week, are recognizing its limits. Congress is also taking an interest in the economic, mental health, and public safety consequences of prolonged solitary confinement. Earlier this week, Raemisch and other criminal justice experts testified in a hearing chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the ranking member. Raemisch explained how Colorado has successfully scaled back its reliance on solitary confinement in recent years, pointing out that extended isolation is not only inhumane and counterproductive, but also far more expensive than holding a prisoner in the general population.

Justice Fellowship President Craig DeRoche, who leads the criminal justice reform and advocacy efforts of my organization, also called over-use of solitary confinement a "missed opportunity to break the cycle of crime." In other words, much of the time and money spent holding inmates in solitary confinement could be better used on mental health services and proven programming that prepares them to return to society.

How has solitary confinement come to be so over-used?

For decades, we have been asking the wrong question. As a tough-on-crime culture, we've been asking, "How do we keep 'bad people' out of our backyards?" As a result, the prison population has exploded, as has the reliance on measures that control rather than rehabilitate the incarcerated. We have tried to quarantine the problem at great human and financial cost; we have not resolved it.

I would argue that we need to ask a new question: How do we bring good neighbors home?

At its most basic level, crime isn't just about broken laws, but about broken relationships - a violation of the mutual trust and responsibility that allow a community to function. Indefinite solitary confinement does nothing to address the relationships that must be restored for prisoners to come home as good citizens and good neighbors. It only exacerbates their social dislocation.

To bring home good neighbors, we need to re-orient our correctional legislation and policies toward restoration and improved public safety outcomes instead of punishment. From the moment of an arrest, our jails and prisons should aim to prepare men and women for reentry into society, so that they are less likely to commit new crimes and harm new victims.

There is some debate about the safety consequences of widespread solitary confinement. In his testimony before the Subcommittee, Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation cited examples of states that have brought down the number of inmates in solitary confinement, while also noting corresponding drops in prison violence and recidivism rates after release.

At the very least, we need to know more about the consequences of this drastic and potentially harmful measure. At best, we need to develop alternatives to long-term segregation. We need to stop dumping the mentally ill into conditions that are known to aggravate their problems. And we need to recognize that, while sometimes necessary, solitary confinement is a blunt instrument best used sparingly. As Raemisch did when he donned a jumpsuit and tasted the effects of even brief isolation for himself, it's time for us to find a degree of empathy, and recognize that men and women behind bars are human like us, capable of a change that's most likely to come in community -- not solitary.

Jim Liske is president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.