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Congressional leaders push for limits on solitary confinement

Debate surrounds the integrity of solitary confinement. Opponents cite studies that show the correlation of isolation and the deterioration of mental health. Others state it is necessary in order to keep prison staff and other inmates safe.

By Stephanie Haines and Jane Herman, Medill News Service
Congressional leaders push for limits on solitary confinement
Inmates at the St. Louis County Jail. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt) | License Photo

WASHINGTON, March 10 (UPI) -- Locked in a seven- by ten-foot cell for 23 hours a day, with little to no human contact except for the brief mutterings of a prison guard: This was Brian Nelson’s typical day for 23 years in solitary confinement.

“Yes I committed a crime and I deserve to go to prison, but I didn’t deserve to be tortured,” Nelson said.

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At age 17, Nelson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison. He served time at various prisons, most of that time in isolation.

“The first time I got to prison I was beaten with pipes,” Nelson said. “I would rather have that every day than the (isolation) cell. What happens in the cell is indescribable.”

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The longest single stretch of his isolation was 12 years at the now-closed Tamms Correction Center in southern Illinois. He was put in isolation without warning and without explanation, he said. One day, U.S. marshals suddenly surrounded him with guns pointed at his head and sent him to the isolation ward.

Solitary confinement has two purposes. The first type of isolation is disciplinary segregation, which punishes inmates for breaking prison rules. The second type, administrative detention, separates inmates who pose a threat to staff or other inmates, or need protection from the general prison population themselves, according to a 2006 report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons.

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According to the report, isolation is meant to be a few weeks, but often it extends into longer periods of time. For Nelson, his confinement lasted for years at a time.

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Detention also includes restrictions on visitors and phone calls. For instance, Nelson was denied telephone use, and his mother was allowed to visit him only once per month.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., held the first congressional hearing investigating the psychological effects of solitary confinement in 2012. According to his opening statement, solitary confinement has “exploded” in the U.S., which has the highest rates of per capita incarceration in the world.

As of 2012, 6.94 million people were being supervised by in U.S. correctional systems, which include parole, local jails and state and federal prisons, according to a December 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

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According to a May 2013 Government Accountability Office report, the Federal Bureau of Prisons isolates 7 percent of its population of 217,000 inmates.

It is difficult to determine the overall rate of solitary confinement in the U.S. because often state prisons do not report their segregation statistics, and many prisons define the practice differently, according to Solitary Watch, a watchdog publication for prison abuses.

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Though Durbin’s efforts to bring attention to the use of solitary confinement have ignited a new awareness to the practice, little change in prisons has occurred, said Jean Casella, the director and co-editor-in-chief of Solitary Watch. Before 2009, little coverage existed around the practice of solitary confinement, Casella said.

“Prisons are something people don’t really want to be involved in,” Casella said. “So it’s very difficult to get a lot of public momentum around change for prison conditions.”

For prisoners, their cell is their mind

Studies show isolation can be psychologically harmful to prisoners. Prisoners in solitary confinement exhibit higher levels of stress and anxiety, according to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“You start hallucinating,” Nelson said. “The cell becomes you.”

Solitary inmates are more likely to commit crimes once they are released, according to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons report.

Problems with impulse control, violent reactions, self‐mutilation and suicide are reported with “alarming frequency”, according to a 2006 University of Chicago Press article on crime and justice by researcher Peter Scharff Smith.

“I tried to kill myself,” Nelson said. “I was trying to starve myself to death.”

People who are kept in isolation are not only at risk for mental health disorders, but their physical health is at risk as well, said Wendi Gardner, a social psychologist and professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

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“Any time we feel isolated or rejected our brains respond to that feeling using exactly the same circuit as the pain system,” Gardner said. “It is actually physically painful to experience loneliness or rejection.”

According to a recent study by the University of Chicago, the effects of social isolation can lead to death as much as “things that we know will kill us,” Gardner said, such as diabetes and smoking.

However, debate surrounding the effects of isolation in prisons may be a result of selection bias, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Justice report. Authors of the report investigated whether forms of segregation in prison cause mental illness or if inmates with mental health issues are more likely to be placed in segregation.

States take action

Some states have started to reform the practice of solitary confinement. In February, the New York State Department of Corrections issued a ban on imposing isolation on juvenile inmates, pregnant inmates and inmates with mental health disorders as a result of the lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of about 3,800 prisoners in solitary confinement in the state.

As a result of increasing litigation over the inhumane treatment in solitary and growing budget deficits, a few states, including Colorado, Maine and Michigan, have made reforms to their prison systems.

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Additionally, the Mississippi Department of Corrections reduced its segregation population from 1,000 to 150 in the past few years, cutting prison violence by about 70 percent, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.

It is often more expensive to house an inmate in solitary than in the general prison population. Mississippi prison officials estimated their reduced use of isolation saved about $8 million per year, according to the same report.

But one reason cited to maintain isolation wards is safety of prison staff and inmates.

“Last year alone, more than 120 of our staff were seriously assaulted by inmates, most often in our high-security institutions,” said Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons during the Feb. 25 hearing. “In addition, nearly 200 inmates were seriously assaulted by other inmates.”

Moving forward

Since his release in 2010, Nelson has been seeing a psychiatrist and said he has trouble interacting with people after his years in solitary.

“I’m not normal and I’ve been home for almost four years,” Nelson said.

Despite his problem, Nelson has devoted himself to advocating for prisoners in solitary and their families.

He now serves as the prison rights coordinator at the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago. Often he gives talks to lawyers, law centers, students and families about his experience in solitary.

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But it is not easy. Each time Nelson tells his story, he relives his experience in the cell.

“As I talk to you the cell is coming back to me,” Nelson said. “When I talk about solitary, I rip my fingernails off just to feel something.”

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