Unconstitutional Solitary Confinement in America
by Stephen Lendman
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Locking people in cages longterm with little or no human contact flagrantly violates the letter and spirit of the law. Yet it’s standard US prison practice nationwide.
America runs the world’s largest gulag system – around 2.4 million people domestically along with a covert global network of black sites, Guantanamo the tip of the iceberg.
The entire system is viciously punitive, mostly affecting people of color, half or more imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, over 500,000 for illicit drug related offenses.
Inhumane treatment is standard practice – brutalizing solitary confinement worst of all. In August, Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Interest Program and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) published a report titled “Time in Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison.”
It updates information on an issue getting scant public attention – affecting as many as 100,000 inmates in America, excluding jails, juvenile facilities, undocumented immigrant incarcerations and military detentions.
Longterm isolation is torture by any standard – symptomatic of a brutal society treating its most vulnerable harshly. Prisoners are confined for 23 hours or longer on weekdays, 24 hours on weekends.
They’re isolated in tiny cells, often for arbitrary reasons. They’re less than 7 x 7 square feet in size – kept usually alone, at times with a second inmate.
Greatly restricted privileges can be curtailed or entirely stopped for alleged misbehavior or the whim of prison authorities or guards.
In many jurisdictions studied, inmates remained isolated for more than three years. Most parts of the country place no limit on how long it can continue.
Societies are best judged by how they treat children, the elderly, the infirm, their most disadvantaged and prisoners. America fails on all counts.
Human and civil rights don’t matter. US prisons are notoriously harsh. Isolated prisoners lack constructive activities. Visits are rare. Direct contact is denied – food delivered through cell door slots.
Social psychologist Hans Toch coined the term “isolation panic” – describing symptoms including hysteria, rage, total loss of control, emotional breakdown, regressive behavior, and self-mutilation.
Dozens of US “supermax” facilities incarcerate the so-called “worst of the worst.”
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute of Corrections calls them “special housing unit(s), maxi-maxi, maximum control facilit(ies), secured housing unit(s), intensive management unit(s), and administrative maximum penitentiar(ies),” describing them as follows:
“a highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit within a secure facility….that isolates inmates from the general prison population and from each other due to grievous crimes, repetitive assaultive or violent institutional behavior, the threat of escape or actual escape from high-custody facility(s), or inciting or threatening to incite disturbances in a correctional institution.”
Inmates are isolated longterm under constant closed-circuit TV surveillance. Alcatraz was the prototype until closed in 1963.
In 1861, it held Civil War prisoners. In 1868, it was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it housed civilian prisoners – remaining a military facility until 1933 when it was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
Incarceration in America is notoriously harsh. Internment crushes the human spirit, mind and body. Physical abuse and extreme deprivation are common. Longterm isolation causes:
irrational anger, at time uncontrollable;
delusions and hallucinations;
profound despair and hopelessness;
for many, a totally dysfunctional state and inability ever to live normally outside of confinement.
Prisoners are caged like animals. For some, it’s like being buried alive, causing irreversible trauma. Longterm isolation creates sociopaths, monsters.
Others become zombies. In 1995, the UN Human Rights Committee called long-term prison isolation incompatible with international standards.
Even the strongest willed break under the strain. Their surroundings overwhelm them. Prison life fosters recidivism.
In 1970, America’s prison population was less than 300,000. It exploded to eight times that size now – a prison/industrial complex built on ruthless get tough on crime policies, incarcerating the nation’s most unwanted, inflicting cruel and unusual punishments behind bars.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”
Visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com.
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