Saturday, May 31, 2014

Solitary confinement

The state of California is an aggressive user of solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement is used to punish inmates who commit violent offenses while in prison and to separate alleged gang members from other prisoners.  Only one prison in California, Pelican Bay, in which prisoners with mental illness may not be held in solitary confinement.  According to state filings in Coleman v. Brown, about 9% of the over 100,000 prisoners in California's correctional system are held in some form of segregated housing or solitary confinement.  The numbers spike when you look at prisoners with mental illnesses.  Nearly 21% of mentally ill prisoners are held in solitary confinement.  Perhaps it is not surprising that more than one third of suicides in the California prison system in 2011 were committed by those in solitary confinement.  More than half of the suicides in the first half of 2012 were committed by those in solitary confinement.  A 2008 study of California prisons found a strong correlation between suicides and solitary confinement, showing that 46% of all suicides from 1998-2004 were committed by prisoners in single cells affiliated with solitary confinement.

Psychological studies have shown that solitary confinement causes a persistent and heightened state of of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns.  Other effects include confused thought processes, oversensitivity, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts.  With all these symptoms, it certainly seems that if you don't have a mental illness before you enter solitary confinement, you're likely to develop one.

California's prison system discussed a new policy of step-down which they promised would give a way out of solitary confinement for over 3,000 prisoners.  Attorney Charles Carbone was quoted in an interview after his testimony "under their new proposed step-down policy there's no way out of [solitary confinement] other than debriefing or participating in a behavior modification program.  There used to be an active review process, every 4 or 6 years, that's gone now."

After the hearing, Tom Ammiano introduced legislation which would cap solitary confinement for gang affiliated violations at 36 months.  The system of gang validation has drawn intense criticism.  Items, such as possession of a book, photograph, or drawing as evidence of gang affiliation.  Ammiano criticized the policy by stating that it would be hard for any member to avoid being painted as gang affiliated.  Yet, the law would only end the solitary confinement at 3 years.  True reform is needed to curb the use of solitary confinement in California and other states.  

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