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article imageOp-Ed: The Waste of Solitary Confinement

By John Dewar Gleissner     Aug 23, 2011 in Crime
Solitary confinement causes mental illness, but we use it more than we did 100 years ago. Our society can do a much better job of punishing offenders than simply locking them in isolated cages.
Solitary confinement multiplies and fully personifies the failures, expense and waste of American prisons. Prison is an expensive way to make bad people worse. Solitary confinement is a very expensive way to make bad people much worse. The United States keeps many thousands of prisoners in "Isolation," more than other nations, just as we house more prisoners than any other nation on a per capita basis. "Solitary" costs more than housing the general prison population. Solitary prisoners exist at the pinnacle of consumption: they receive full-ride welfare, including room service, and do nothing for anyone else.
Solitary does not eliminate violence in prison, in solitary or upon the release of prisoners. While violent prisoners can be sealed off, other bad ones are usually created anew from within the general prison population. Prisons breed violence. "Segregation" makes prisoners worse faster, more predictably and completely, lessening the chance they will ever be productive members of society. It drives inmates crazy, destroys their social skills and makes them angry. These isolates often lose mental faculties, hallucinate, become paranoid and then cannot interact with others successfully.
Often, prisoners thrown in "The Hole" were not the worst criminals on the outside. Instead, they are the worst prisoners, people who cannot handle prison life. With the overcrowding of American prisons, the disciplinary problems facing wardens increased. Given their limited options, wardens have to use "Hellhole" for disciplinary, protective, anti-gang and administrative reasons. That's because the general prison model doesn't work as rehabilitation or deterrence. In prison itself, incarceration does not even provide the full benefit of incapacitation - unless the prisoner is placed in "The Cooler." Legislators hate to fund rehabilitation programs. Restrictive legislation bars most private businesses from offering prisoners jobs in prison.
Solitary confinement was a failure from its very first use. The strong punitive streak in American public thought condones what experience and scientific studies prove is psychological torture. (We start our policy of isolation early with school suspensions and expulsions.) Of course, Supermax prisons are hidden from the eyes of the people, so ignoring torture there is fairly easy. Among democracies, the United States increasingly stands alone in its use of "isolation units." Isolating humans in tiny cages is a wasteful dead-end, a breeding ground for future problems upon release - and it has always been that way. (See video)
Many Americans think Old South slaveholders were cruel, and don't realize that what we do now with our 2.3 million prisoners is far worse. A Southern slaveholder would put slaves to work in the sunlight with their families and friends. To increase slave holdings, slaveholders encouraged their young slaves to marry early by "jumping the broom." Slaves had fun holidays according to Frederick Douglass. Slaveholders figured out ways to make the work of corn shucking, building, sewing and harvests fun. Slaves did not deserve their enslavement, but for many reasons, they were never incarcerated. Slaves may have spent a week or month in jail, but they were too valuable as workers to lock up for longer periods. Old South slaves were far happier and less violent than our New Age slaves today.
Prisoners, especially those in "The Hole," would be better off if they were treated as antebellum slaves and made to work. See, Prison and Slavery - A Surprising Comparison, which proposes reforms drawn from American history. The Thirteenth Amendment specifically allows involuntary servitude by convicts. Perhaps the punitive mentality of the American people, continually reflected in the politicians we elect, would soften if we regarded prisoners as our slaves, which they truly are. Trying to sell "human rights" for robbers, rapists, murderers and drug dealers won't work politically. The Quakers now use this humanitarian argument - but they of course invented solitary confinement in Pennsylvania.
We will never abolish prisons or solitary confinement completely, but most of the criminals we now incarcerate could be made to work 50 or 60 hours per week, as the slaves did. Hard labor would teach prisoners valuable life skills for use out of prison, markedly reduce the costs of imprisoning them and bring greater peace to prison. The victims of crime might receive more restitution and the families of prisoners more child support. Hard labor is good for prisoners and has the opposite effect of solitary confinement. It's time to wipe out the restrictive federal and state laws that keep prisoners idle, end this massive waste in America and put most of our 2,300,000 New Age slaves to work.
(Refer: Incarceration Reform: Blog
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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