An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations, U.S. leaders are rethinking the practice.
WASHINGTON — Before he was exonerated of murder and released in 2010, Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in a Texas prison, 16 of them all alone in a tiny cell.
Actually, he does not count it that way. He counts his time in solitary confinement as “60 square feet, 24 hours a day, 6,640 days.” The purpose, Graves came to conclude, was simple. “It is designed to break a man’s will to live,” he said.
An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations U.S. leaders are rethinking the practice. President Obama last week ordered a Justice Department review of solitary confinement while Congress and more than a dozen states consider limits on it. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a Supreme Court ruling last month, all but invited a constitutional challenge.
“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Obama asked in a speech at a convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia, where he called for an overhaul of the criminal-justice system. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”
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While other changes to the justice system would require Congress to act, this is one area where the president has at least some latitude, although it is uncertain how much. Either way, it could be a test of his drive in his final 18 months in office to remake America’s prisons.
In his NAACP speech and during a visit to a federal prison, the first by a sitting president, Obama expressed a concern for the lives of prisoners that few if any of his predecessors have shown.
“No president has ever suggested that there’s anything problematic about solitary confinement, that we should be studying it or that it’s overused,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “I feel like that has got to be some sort of a tipping point.”
The Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, called the moment “a game changer.” He said: “We’ve been saying for decades, ‘It’s time,’ and it really feels now like it is time. The silence has been broken.”
Studies have found that solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and that even stable people held in isolation report experiencing psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, self-cutting or other acts of self-harm or compulsive actions like pacing or cleaning a cell over and over.
“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental-health programs. “This is permanent damage.”
Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture.
“Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said. “It might be said that condemning a person to solitary confinement treats a person as an animal. And so that they emerge from such treatment exhibiting animalistic behavior can’t be surprising.”
Many corrections officials, even those who believe that solitary confinement is overused, caution that in some situations, it may be unavoidable.
“If someone has committed a violent assault, whether it be a staff member or another inmate, until you can somehow solve that problem, that person is going to need to be isolated,” said Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s corrections department. He pointed to an inmate who said he would kill someone if he were allowed out of solitary, a threat mental-health professionals considered credible.
Raemisch has worked to substantially reduce the use of solitary confinement in Colorado but said groups that opposed it altogether should help develop other ways to handle inmates who pose a danger of violence.
“There are those that say this is bad,” he said, “but when you look around for an alternative, people have left the room.”
Solitary confinement has been widespread since the 1980s, when many states built super-maximum security prisons. They were intended to hold the most dangerous criminals, but corrections departments, dealing with gang violence and crowding worsened by stiffer sentences, began removing an increasing number of inmates from the general population, including some who did not pose a serious threat.
They sent them to isolation units where prisoners in most cases spent 23 hours or more a day in their cells, often without visiting privileges or access to rehabilitation programs. The solitary-confinement unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, where some inmates have been kept for more than 20 years, was specially designed to minimize human interaction.
Obama can exert little control over state prison systems, but he hopes that any changes he makes in the federal system will prod states to follow suit.
The federal Bureau of Prisons has three types of restrictive housing for inmates who exhibit aggressive or disruptive behavior, including isolation units at the federal supermaximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.
Some prisoners are also placed in isolation to protect them from other inmates. Susan Allison, acting deputy assistant director of the bureau, said that most federal prisoners were housed two to a cell, and that inmates who are housed alone had regular contact with staff members.
A December 2014 report found that more than 12,000 inmates, or 5 percent of the federal prison population, were being housed in some type of unit to isolate prisoners in November 2013, but that number had declined to about 9,000 by June 2014. The overall prison population also decreased during that period.
Compared with inmates in state prisons, federal inmates tend to be older and often locked up for drug offenses or other nonviolent crimes. But the report found a lack of due process in how federal inmates were assigned to isolation units and how long they were kept there.
Concern about solitary confinement has been growing in both parties. Two Senate hearings have been held on the issue and in the opinion last month, Kennedy wrote extensively about the potentially damaging effects of prolonged solitary confinement, noting that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”
At least 15 state legislatures have recently explored restrictions on solitary confinement. California lawmakers are debating a bill banning solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates in juvenile facilities and limiting its use for others to instances of direct threat and even then for no longer than four hours.
An aide to Obama, who visited the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma last week, said the issue “has been on his radar screen for many years.” White House officials said the Justice Department review, to be conducted by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, would determine the leeway the president has to change the federal system.
A Justice Department official would not say how the review would be conducted or how long it might take.
Graves, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of six people in 1992 only to be declared innocent and released nearly two decades later, has become a leading voice for curbing solitary confinement.
Placed in solitary confinement because he was on death row, Graves has, since his release, started an advocacy group called Anthony Believes and testified before Congress. He said he was glad that Obama had taken on the issue.
“It’s a good thing that he’s actually talking about it and going to look at it because it puts it on the map,” Graves said. But by his own account, Graves is impatient. “I’m just tired of speeches,” he said. “I just want somebody to do something about it.”