Cruel And Usual Punishment
By David C. Leven
Tens of thousands of inmates across the country are currently in solitary confinement 23 hours a day as punishment for disciplinary infractions. Some of these inmates are condemned to a year or more of this tormented isolation. These extreme and excessive punishments are often highly disproportionate to the misconduct, far worse and far more unfair, hurtful, and damaging than the inmate's infraction.
Isolation for 23 hours a day for prolonged periods, except for very serious wrongdoing, reflects a twisted concept of justice. These lengthy punishments inflict humiliation and suffering and sometimes even madness but do not serve any legitimate correctional goal. Regrettably, prison officials have been given a false sense of confidence about the propriety of their disciplinary decisions as deferential courts have generally, inexcusably, upheld them, leaving correction officials with virtually unfettered discretion.
Many inmates enter prison as nonviolent, low-level drug offenders, yet minor misconduct "on the inside" is met with cruel punishment. Whether they deteriorate into "zombies" or "monsters" because of such punishment is ignored by our public servants, despite substantial evidence that isolation generates mental illness. Mild psychiatric problems can be exacerbated by and become dangerous after long months or years of isolation, according to Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard psychiatrist and an expert on prison mental health. Dr. Grassian says that we release these inmates to their communities "as sick, alienated, angry, rageful, and as psychologically disturbed as you can imagine."
Evidence of the damaging effects of isolation on inmates are frequently observed in prison: suicides and attempted suicides, sexual assaults, self-mutilation, smearing and throwing of feces, psychotic rages, banging heads on walls, and other destructive behaviors. It seems inconceivable that corrections officials would allow these unintended, albeit predictable, consequences of long-term isolation to continue; but that is the reality. It is indicative of just how poorly discipline is managed in our prisons.
The forgotten goal of restoring misbehaving inmates must become a renewed priority. We need to constantly remember that many of these men and women were themselves victimized and suffered serious mistreatment as children. They come from dysfunctional homes and are the products of physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect, and a lack of love and support, making it difficult to develop self-esteem and empathy. We need to understand that when inmates act out, it is a way for them to assert power and
self-identity. Rather than treating them in a way that encourages anger and feelings of powerlessness and dehumanization, we need a system that allows inmates to experience empowerment, but in constructive ways. We need to shift our punitive thinking and actions towards a different model of inmate justice, which promotes accountability but also fosters restoration.
Improvements are necessary. Most importantly, strict limitations on both the nature and length of sanctions are required. Solitary confinement should be reserved for only those inmates who are assaultive or otherwise determined to be dangerous based on specific acts. Generally, solitary confinement terms should be limited to a range of 30 to 60 days, except in cases of serious assaults or attempted assaults or serious threats to the safety or security of a prison.
More programming, not less, is appropriate for inmates in solitary confinement, especially for those confined for more than 60 days, both to prevent deterioration and to address their needs. Such programming will not just reduce the number of inmates who return to solitary confinement, it will help better prepare inmates to return to their communities with positive attitudes, not with anger and severe mental health problems. Meaningful program ming should help inmates overcome those problems that led to their imprisonment and isolation. Assaultive inmates should participate in alternative to violence programs. Drug-addicted inmates (many of whom don't belong in prison in the first place) should participate in drug treatment programs. Similar programs should be available for alcoholics. Inmates who were participating in a GED program should be able to continue to do so; those who were not should be given the opportunity to do so. After 60 days, inmates who have behaved well should be able to engage in some communal cell block activities, such as meals and games. And after 90 days, a gradual reintegration program should begin for wellbehaved inmates, allowing them to participate in some general population activities, such as outdoor recreation. Treating inmates in a positive, forward-looking way, by instituting restorative justice concepts, will inevitably lead to better attitudes and behavior than our failed punitive justice model.
It is time to end the unnecessary cruel punishment of inmates in our prisons, so many of whom are nonviolent, mostly low-level drug offenders. The lives of thousands of men and women are at stake, as is the safety of our communities.
David C. Leven is Deputy Director of The Lindesmith Center, a drug policy institute in New York City. He served as Executive Director of Prisoners' Legal Services of New Yorkfrom 1979 to 1999.
By Kelly Ali
On October 12, 1 "9, our daughter Brittany and I got on the road at 6:30 a.m., just as I had planned, to visit my husband Danish In federal prison. I was satisfied with the way that I looked and knew that Danish would like It as well. We got to the prison at 8:05 am.
When I walked through the entrance I was instructed that I could only bring my car keys into the lobby. I had to return my purse to my car, which made no sense, since they had large lockers and I was going to have to lock up my keys anyway. I checked my hair and my makeup In the car and then went back to the lobby. I signed in and waited, and waited, and waited. All I could think about was the precious time I was losing with my husband while they appeared to chitchat. Finally, they called my name. They told me I was not in the system, that I was not on my husband's visiting list. I know that was a mistake because I had called. Eventually, they found me under my maiden name.
After that scare I thought all would be okay. But then I was informed that my skirt was to short and I could not visit. They told me that it had to be no more then 3 inches above my knee. I looked down and thought they were crazy. The skirt was at my knee. They told me that when I sat down the skirt would go up, so I would have to change. I could have argued but instead I asked where there was a store. I bought a pair of pants and a shirt with money that I could not afford to spend.
Brittany and I talked, then played, then walted for what seemed like eternity. Finally, they called myname again. Brittany cleared the metal detector without a problem. I walked through. Beep. I took of my shoes. Beep. I took oft my jewelry. Beep. I took~out my hair clip. Beep. There was nothing left to take off. Then to my horror, the guard asked me (loud enough for everyone to hear): " Do you have on an underwire bra?" I have always been extremely modest and thought I would melt into the floor. What washe gonna make me do, take it off? He told me to cross my arms in front of me and walk through slowly, sideways. I cleared the damn detector.
Ourvisit was an emotional roller coaster. There was so much that had been pent up over the past year and it all came pouring out. Brittany said it best, "Daddy, I think I need a hug." The tears started to fall. Danish had to keep reminding us thatwe could hold hands buthis hadtobeontopof mineorthey could end the visit. Before we knew it, time was up. Sayinggoodbye was hard but part of me was glad to go. I just wished that he would-be coming with us. This was hardest for Brittany and she yelled to him'-across the room, "Daddy please come home. I promise I Will be good. Please Daddy." There was nothing either of us could do to ease her pain.
Kelly_Aft Ja a regional leader for The November Coalition.
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