Standard of indecency in punishment (solitary confinement)

From: Akron Beacon Journal Online
By Laura Ofobike, Beacon Journal chief editorial writer

“Most Americans feel that life in prison and jail does not affect them. It takes an awful event to remind people that the dangers inside can endanger them. … The temptation is always to look away, hoping the troubles inside the walls will not affect us.

“Every day judges send thousands of men and women to jail or prison, but the public knows very little about the conditions of confinement and whether they are punishing in ways that no judge or jury ever intended.
“Americans share concerns about struggling schools, dangerous hospitals, and corrupt corporations. We now talk openly about domestic violence and child abuse because we know there are terrible consequences for our loved ones, our families, and our communities if we remain silent. Yet there is a shame and a stigma about incarceration that makes it very difficult to have honest, productive conversations about what we are doing and the results. …”

So begins the chairmen’s preface to a report submitted in 2006 by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. It was the questioning, the vague discomfort in not knowing — and not caring, frankly — whether we are punishing people “in ways that no judge or jury ever intended” that stuck with me.
But then uneasiness fades over time, and the source of it is forgotten until something else jolts it back to mind — as happened in the flurry of recent Supreme Court decisions — to be precise, the ruling that an automatic sentence of life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment to impose on children below age 18. Many of the commentaries on the ruling recalled another Supreme Court that had concluded in 1958 that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

A half-century more of maturing has brought us to the point where we can finally reject as inhumane a punishment that forever writes off children, even those who have killed.

But for the standards of decency to evolve at a faster pace, it will take many more ordinary citizens not looking away from how we punish crime as a society but examining “what we are doing and the results.”
One of the things we are doing more of in federal and state prisons across the country is using solitary confinement. In April, Amnesty International and various human rights groups noted a somber anniversary: Two of the three Louisiana prisoners known as the Angola Three, clocked 40 years in solitary confinement. Forty years deprived of virtually all human interactions.

In May, attorneys challenged the constitutionality of solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay prison, filing a class-action suit involving prisoners who have languished in solitary for 10 years or longer.
In essence, the commissioners’ report in 2006 was asking: As a society, do we care whether in the process of punishing crime, we adopt practices that permanently damage human beings? A couple of weeks ago, Illinois’ Sen. Richard Durbin conducted hearings on the increased use of long-term solitary confinement, a first for Congress, calling the practice “a human rights issue we can’t ignore.”

Solitary confinement is by no means a novel method. It is used widely for inmate control to separate the most dangerous and violent prisoners from the general prison population and staff. It is used to discipline inmates for rule violations. As political prisoners and hostages attest, solitary confinement also is an effective instrument of mental torture, a devilishly simple method to break down the human mind and spirit. Ask a Nelson Mandela or a John McCain.

What has changed over the years, according to experts, is that as federal and state facilities have grown more crowded, a punishment that typically was imposed for short periods of time has evolved into a ready means to control inmates for the long term. Inmates are locked up for up to 23 hours a day, their world reduced to tiny cells (which one expert witness compared to the size of a king-size bed), their interactions with staff conducted through slits in the prison walls, no social contacts permitted.

Read the rest here

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