Over the last two weeks, the ACLU has adopted a much more vigorous stance against solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. It has launched a listserv to bring together lawyers, activists, scholars, journalists, and others interested in the subject, and asked the UN Human Rights Council to look into solitary’s torturous effects on prisoners in the United States. On Thursday David Fathi, who heads the organization’s National Prison Project wrote a post on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, which we reproduce in full below, setting out the group’s broad new approach to this issue.
Fathi,who also is an advisor to Solitary Watch, agreed the ACLU had launched a new policy. “Yes, we have absolutely established fighting solitary confinement as a priority issue,’’ he said in a phone interview on Friday. “We are preparing to fight on all fronts. Historically our work against solitary was primarily litigation. Now we support legislation such as the bill in Colorado,” which would curtail the use of solitary for prisoners with mental illness and developmental disabilities. “We hope for similar bills in other states,” he continued. “In New Mexico, there is legislation that would require a study of solitary.’’ Fathi said the ACLU also looked towards the sort of administrative settlement that took place in Mississippi, where after lengthy litigation, “the state basically closed down its solitary cells” (as we described here last year). He believes the United States has turned a corner on this subject with “a breakthrough in public awareness.’’
Fathi in his blog post puts the number of people in solitary at 20,000, which reflects studies of supermax prisons. However, he said that when you take into account all the different types of segregation, that figure seems conservative and should likely be much higher.
This week, Colorado state Sen. Morgan Carroll and Rep. Claire Levy introduced a bill that would substantially limit the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. S.B. 176 would restrict solitary confinement of prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities, who currently make up more than one-third of the state’s solitary confinement population. It would require regular mental health evaluations for prisoners in solitary, and prompt removal of those who develop mental illness. And it would significantly restrict the practice of releasing prisoners directly from solitary confinement into the community, where they are more likely to re-offend than prisoners who transition from solitary to the general prison population before release.
The shattering psychological effects of solitary confinement, even for relatively short periods, are well known. “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his time in isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” The American journalist Roxana Saberi, imprisoned by the Iranian government, said that she was “going crazy” after two weeks in solitary. Imagine, then, that 54 prisoners in Illinois have been in continuous solitary confinement for more than 10 years.
These reforms are long overdue for Colorado and for the nation as a whole. Solitary confinement is an expensive boondoggle – in Colorado, it costs an additional $21,485 per year for each prisoner. And all we get for that investment is an undermining of our public safety. The vast majority of prisoners who are forced to endure long-term isolation are eventually released back into the community, where the devastating impact of solitary confinement leaves them more damaged and less capable of living a law-abiding life.
The United States uses long-term solitary confinement to a degree unparalleled in other democracies, with an estimated 20,000 prisoners in solitary at any one time, and it’s attracting increasing criticism from international human rights bodies. The U.N. Human Rights Committee and Committee Against Torture have both expressed concern about the use of prolonged isolation in U.S. prisons and recommended scrutinizing this practice with a view to bringing prison conditions and treatment of prisoners in line with international human rights norms. And the European Court of Human Rights has temporarily blocked the extradition of four terrorism suspects to the United States on the ground that their possible incarceration in a Supermax prison, where solitary confinement is the norm, could violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
Last week the ACLU urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to address the widespread violations of the human rights of prisoners in the United States associated with solitary confinement. Many of the measures we call for, such as prohibiting solitary confinement of the mentally ill and careful monitoring of prisoners in solitary for mental illness, are also part of Colorado’s S.B. 176. Colorado may be only one state, but the bill’s introduction is a hopeful sign that the United States may, at last, be turning the corner on solitary confinement.