It's not exactly sentencing-related, but we still think it's worth commenting on, because so many of FAMM's supporters deal with it: solitary confinement, also known by the euphemism "segregation." It's used far and wide, in state prisons and federal ones, and thousands are subjected to it each year, sometimes for lengthy periods of time.
Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a historic hearing -- the first ever -- on the use of solitary confinement. You can read the written testimony of the speakers and watch a webcast of the hearing at this link.
Also check out this moving piece from The Hill, by Justice Fellowship's Pat Nolan. It is encouraging and inspiring to see people of faith taking the lead against the use of lengthy solitary confinement:
Today, we will join hundreds of people of faith across the nation to fast for 23 hours, symbolizing the 23 hours per day that tens of thousands of prisoners, inmates, and detainees, are warehoused in solitary confinement. As we have seen in recent prisoner hunger strikes in California and Virginia, refusing food is one of the few means prisoners have to protest their conditions in solitary confinement. We will fast and pray for divine intervention that “drives out fear.” It is fear, rather than evidence-based best practices, that has led to an explosion in America’s use of solitary confinement over the past several decades.
At noon Tuesday, we will break our fast immediately after the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights is, like a growing number of states across the nation, reassessing this harmful, costly, and ineffective practice. As people of faith, we are grateful.
Although the particular conditions in “segregation” vary depending on the facility, individuals are typically locked down 23 or 24 hours a day in small cells with no natural light and no meaningful contact with staff or other prisoners. Inmates may be allowed an hour of “recreation” (alone) in a caged pen. We confine people in these isolated conditions for weeks, years, even decades on end. Research consistently demonstrates that the psychological effects, particularly among children and the mentally ill, are devastating. Even those who enter solitary confinement without pre-existing mental illness have shown symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness, and heart palpitations. Some experience hallucinations, perceptual distortions, and suicidal ideation.As we so often say on this blog (like here and here), for those of us who have no experience or encounters with prisons, we don't understand what incarceration really means. For too many prisoners, it can mean crushing periods of traumatizing solitude. People who break the law do deserve punishment -- but they do not deserve to be broken beyond repair. It doesn't serve the prisoner's interests -- or society's when that person is (almost always) released later on.
From 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40% compared to 28%. Prolonged solitary confinement has become a default management tool, not only as a response to violent behavior, but exceedingly as routine practice for minor rule infractions, involuntary protection, and as a means of managing difficult inmates, particularly those with mental illness.
Supporting responsible limits to solitary confinement is not about whether individuals convicted of certain crimes deserve to be sent to prison. Rather, it’s about opposing treatment that is so severe that it violates our values as a nation, as people of faith, and as fellow human beings.
Lawmakers should keep this in mind when creating sentencing laws. Prison can mean being physically broken, through rape. It can also mean being mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually broken, through solitary confinement. We should be extremely careful when deciding who we send to prison and for how long -- and that decision is best left to judges who see the offenders up close, not legislatures who never lay eyes on them.