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America's Invisible and Costly Human Rights Crisis

When the news broke years ago that U.S. forces were using torture on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, many politicians and the public expressed appropriate horror. There was shock and disappointment that our country would resort to such inhumane, abusive actions against our fellow human beings, most of whom then were innocent victims of bounty hunters in Afghanistan.

With this frame of reverence in mind, it is unfortunate that many Americans do not contemplate — or are simply unaware of — blatant torture occurring in prisons every day right here in the United States. This form of physical and psychological violence is called many things: “isolation”, “administrative segregation”, “control units”, “secure housing” and by its most well-known designation, solitary confinement. This practice of imprisonment is widely used across our nation with disturbingly little oversight and restriction. The full extent of the use of solitary confinement is truly alarming — it is most certainly a human rights abuse and a blight on our national character.

Imagine yourself being locked in a small windowless room for days, weeks, or years… perhaps even for the majority of your life. You receive food and water through a small slot and have little-to-no human contact — you might go days or weeks without speaking to another person. You are allowed out for perhaps an hour a day for some exercise. This is the living reality for tens of thousands of Americans in our prison system. Self-mutilation and suicide attempts among those in solitary confinement are far too common. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that the majority of prison suicides are inmates who were being held in solitary.

Many more studies have shown that solitary confinement has a severe psychologically damaging effect on human beings. For prisoners already suffering from mental illness, it exacerbates their problems. Senator John McCain wrote of his experience in solitary confinement as a P.O.W. in Vietnam: “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Many might dismiss and even justify punishment by solitary confinement by convincing themselves that those subjected to it are “bad people.” But this is a gross misunderstanding of its common use in our prisons. Many prisoners held in solitary are mentally ill, mentally handicapped, or illiterate. Some are placed in solitary purportedly for their “safety” to protect them from themselves or from other prisoners.

Some put in solitary are children as young as 14 or 15. What type of prison infraction would result in a 15 year old being locked up in solitary? — “15 days for not making the bed; 15 days for not keeping the cell door open; 20 or 25 days for being in someone else’s cell” are some, according to a report on the issue by Human Rights Watch.

Journalist James Ridgeway calls the use of solitary confinement “a second sentence.” The first sentence is, of course, being sent to prison. The second sentence is totally decided by the warden and guards without appealable criteria. As such, the act of disobeying instructions or vaguely interpreted prison rules or the whim of the warden can warrant a lengthy stay in solitary. The lack of accountability in this area is notorious and critical. For many prisoners, a stay in solitary is a death sentence.

Ridgeway, along with Jean Cassella, founded Solitary Watch (solitarywatch.com) in 2009. Their goal is to bring attention to what really goes on in America’s prisons, which are subjected to so little public exposure of their daily operations.

The United States is the world leader in locking people up. There are currently about 2.3 million imprisoned people in the United StatesAbout 25 percent of them are there for nonviolent drug offenses, victims of the insatiable “prison-industrial complex” which costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Of these millions of inmates, it is estimated that as many as 80,000 are being held in solitary confinement according to Solitary Watch. Prisons are not required to provide data on how and when they use this highly questionable method of incarceration. Over 40 prisons are considered “supermax” facilities where the majority of cells are solitary units. These prisons alone account for about 30,000 people.

For-profit corporate-owned prisons like solitary confinement because it extends a prisoners’ sentence. It is also far more expensive to keep prisoners in solitary confinement — one study estimates that the average cost of housing an inmate in a supermax prison is $75,000, as opposed to $25,000 per cell in a regular state prison. This cost is passed along to taxpayers.

Imagine how things might change if more ordinary Americans had access to inspect the prisons their tax dollars pay for. A precedent for this exists. In Great Britain, “Independent Monitoring Boards” offer a unique civic perspective on regulating what happens inside prison walls. Ordinary citizens are able to volunteer to be these independent monitors. Volunteers are allowed unannounced access to prison facilities anytime, day or night. The volunteers are free to tour the prison, speak with the inmates, sample the food, and inspect the clothing and the state of medical care.

(Read Solitary Watch’s article on British Prisons here.)

Such an idea of citizen responsibility might seem highly unusual to most Americans to whom prisons are largely out of sight and out of mind. The first step in addressing this crisis of abuse is raising awareness.

Reporters are rarely given full access to prisons so they can report on what is going on inside. Let the press in! The best source of information about the state of our prisons is the prisoners themselves — but press access to them is restricted and the Department of Justice is not listening to their appeals. With this barrier in place, prisons are virtually shut off from any accountability or independent oversight. Wardens and guards are the only ones making decisions about the treatment of many prisoners.

And where are the judges? All judges — federal, state, and local should have firsthand knowledge of the conditions in prisons so that they can make better informed decisions when sentencing those who come before them.

Here’s a bold suggestion that might move the needle. All nine members of the United States Supreme Court should spend 48 hours in solitary confinement. Imagine how quickly the treatment of our incarcerated population would change if those at forefront of our judicial system had a small taste of what it is like to be locked in a tiny cell, alone, with no human contact for such an amount of time. Just 48 hours! There is precedent for some state judges actually spending time in prison years ago.

Some prisoners, such as Herman Wallace, have spent the majority of their lives suffering under these conditions. Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement while maintaining his innocence. The warden of the Louisiana prison where he was held ascribed his “Black Pantherism” as the reason. Wallace was released in October of last year and died three days later at the age of 71. These acts of astonishing cruelty should not happen in a country governed by the rule of law.

Too many people overlook the plight of prisoners, deeming them criminals and not concerning themselves with the plights of people they feel have no place or say in our society. There is little recognition of wrongful convictions and the role of rehabilitation that has worked in other western countries with far less recidivist rates then in the U.S. This mindset is a major obstacle in drawing attention to the inhumane treatment inmates often receive in our justice system.

The legendary investigator Jim Ridgeway says of the Solitary Watch project: “We’re not trying to let criminals out. We’re just trying to let people know what is going on.”

For those who want to do something now, consider donating to Solitary Watch’s campaign “Lifeline to Solitary.” This lean and efficient campaign means to establish contact with prisoners held in long-term solitary. This connection serves two purposes — it allows Solitary Watch to correspond with prisoners and report on their conditions. Secondly, it provides those in isolation a key connection to the outside world and a reminder that they do matter.

Visit the Lifeline to Solitary fundraising page here.

Prisons are a grim and unpleasant part of our system of justice. That said, we can do much, much better about how to humanely treat people who are serving their time often under grotesquely long sentences for non-violent crimes.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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