End use of isolation as protective custody in American prisons


Solitary confinement has long been viewed by experts and human rights organizations as a form of torture. As far back as 1890, the United States Supreme Court declared the practice of solitary confinement abandoned, noting the high rates of suicide and insanity among prisoners subjected to isolation. Charles Dickens went so far as to deem the use of solitary in 19th century America "worse than any torment of the body."

But the use of isolation has not been abandoned in American jails and prisons. In fact, it has increased greatly. It has been estimated that one in five U.S. prisoners has spent time in isolation in the last year. With about 2 million people incarcerated, that means about 400,000 prisoners experience isolation each year. Thirty-three to 50 percent of those prisoners are seriously mentally ill, with isolation itself the cause in many cases.

Often prisoners who have cooperated with government authorities cannot live in general population for fear of being attacked by other prisoners. Their reward for helping the government put other people in jail is "protective" punishment in what federal prison officials call the "Special Housing Unit" (SHU). The SHU, nebulous acronym aside, is nothing less than isolation.

Protectees such as informants and undesirable prisoners such as sex offenders sometimes spend years in isolation. Economically, this is a losing proposition. It is much more expensive to house prisoners in isolation than in general population. In California, for example, it costs $70,000 per year to hold a prisoner in isolation. The national average cost per year for a general population prisoner is $30,000.

The financial reality of using isolation for protection has not driven any real discussion of abandoning the practice, however. Even though the operation and financing of American prisons are informational black holes, policy makers have been aware of the cost of isolation and its overuse. In 2013, for example, the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report on the Federal Bureau of Prison's escalating overuse of "administrative segregation" – yet another name for protective custody isolation.

The problem with isolation for protection, or for any other reason, is that the practice is inhumane. Prisoners literally go crazy in isolation, and it is not hard to imagine why. Consider this scenario:

The authorities decide that you need to be protected. The solution is to put a steel bunk and a foam mattress in your bathroom and then to lock you in there. For years, you'll get three meals per day (sometimes two) delivered through a small hole in the door. Once a month or so, you may be given a book or two, or just some pieces of a book. You may get toilet paper, depending on the mood of the person delivering your meals. And you'll be subjected to the sounds of people screaming and banging on doors all day and all night long. This is solitary confinement in America.

It is estimated that 50 percent of all prisoner suicides in the United States take place in isolation, and you'll soon know why. You'll lose weight, and you'll lose hope. If you're lucky, the authorities will stack another bunk on top of yours and place a stranger in the bathroom with you. If you don't end up wanting to kill each other (a real concern which does occasionally happen), you'll both slowly deteriorate together.

When asked what surprised him most about a judicial visit to the Pelican Bay, California SHU in the 1990s, United States District Judge Thelton E. Henderson said, "The inhumanity of the thing. They were treating people like animals." As a nation, are we prepared to treat any human being like an animal? Can we say that people who need our protection – even convicted criminals – should be "protected" in a way that drives them mad?

Perhaps we should lock ourselves in our bathrooms for a few days and think on it.

Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a leading expert in the field of correctional education and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.


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