Criminal Justice

Solitary Confinement Abuse Threatens Public Safety

Every year, thousands of prisoners are released directly from solitary confinement back into civil society. In doing so, prisoners are left unprepared for civilian life, consequently significantly increasing their chances of returning to prison. In order to reduce prison recidivism, it is imperative that released prisoners are allowed to regain the skills necessary to become productive members of society prior to being released from prison.

Prisoners in solitary confinement spend up to 23 hours a day in an isolated, locked cell. If the inmates are fortunate they are given a Bible or book and maybe even study materials. Prisoners placed in solitary confinement frequently suffer from severe psychological effects including hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia and paranoia, increased risk of suicide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Juveniles and those with mental disorders are particularly vulnerable to these effects, however, long periods of time in solitary confinement compromises the mental health of any prisoner, regardless of previous mental state.

Releasing unprepared, mentally compromised prisoners back into civil society causes both a community health problem and a public safety issue. In several states, prisoners who are released directly from solitary confinement are less likely to be assigned to a probation or parole officer. These unprepared prisoners are more likely to end up homeless, jobless, or back in jail.

A study conducted by National Public Radio and The Marshall Project found that in 2014, 24 states released more than 10,000 people directly from solitary confinement. In Texas, for example, 1,174 people were freed directly from administrative segregation to civil society in fiscal year 2014. The other 26 states did not keep records and therefore were unable to determine how many prisoners were released directly from solitary confinement.

Analysts for the Texas Legislative Budget Board found that in 2006, more than 60 percent of state prisoners who were released directly from solitary confinement were not supervised when they were freed and the same percentage were rearrested within three years. By comparison, only 14 percent of other prisoners released were left unsupervised and only 49 percent of all people released arrested again within three years.

The joint NPR and The Marshall Project report cited a man named Mark – who withheld his last name out of fear of retribution from prison guards – who was locked in a 60-square-foot steel and concrete cell for 23 hours a day for about 30 months. His only human interaction was when the guard slid food to him through a slot in the door or when he was allowed to speak to his mother through Plexiglas. He was not approved for parole and after his five year sentence he was released with only a check and the clothes on his back.

Upon his release, Mark’s mother immediately knew that he would struggle to adjust to civilian life. She expected him to be overcome with joy that he was finally free, but instead, he remained stiff and hardly smiled. He had battled mental illness all of his life and eventually stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia while imprisoned because it made him weak and unable to stay alert.

Four months after he was released from prison, Mark returned to jail for armed robbery. During one of his mother’s visits, he told her that he missed solitary. It is reasonable to suspect that if Mark had been placed back into the general prison population prior to being released, he may have regained some social skills and been better equipped for civil society.

Given this unjust defect in our criminal justice system, the American Legislative Exchange Council has drafted a model resolution (Resolution on the Release of Inmates Directly from Solitary Confinement). The resolution advises that prisons should avoid releasing prisoners directly from solitary confinement. Furthermore, placing a prisoner in solitary confinement within 90 days of his or her release should require the approval of the head of the corrections department or his / her designee with an exception if the inmate was separated based on a severe disciplinary violation within 180 days of their release.  By adopting these regulations, thousands of prisoners will be more prepared to return to civil society as productive citizens and less likely to return to a life of crime.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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