It's time to end solitary confinement in U.S. prisons

Rather than reserving solitary confinement for the most vicious, unrepentant criminals, American prisons dole it out in heaping portions – and often for no good reason. Some inmates are put in solitary confinement for repeated violations of minor prison rules. There was a report at the congressional hearing of a prisoner who was caught with 17 packs of cigarettes and given 15 days for each pack, or eight months. Worse still: many inmates are put in solitary not because they have done anything wrong, but for their own protection. This includes victims of in-prison attacks and sexual assaults, gay inmates, and children…

As far back as 1890, the Supreme Court called solitary confinement an “infamous punishment” and said of it: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, even after a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane . . .” What the court did not do then – and still has not done – is to take the logical step of declaring solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment.

Although the courts have declined – so far, at least – to put an end to it, solitary confinement could nevertheless be at a turning point. Momentum has been building against it for the past few years. In 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommended ending “conditions of isolation,” or short of that, reining in the most abusive uses of solitary confinement. There is a fledgling religious campaign to end the practice, including a short documentary, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard,” produced by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.