The Problem Of America’s Prisons, Ctd

In an otherwise grim report about solitary confinement, Shruti Ravindran points outs that prison officials across the country are rethinking the practice:

A recent case involving death row inmates in Unit 32, a supermax facility in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, sparked off a change of heart among prison officials, and something of a national trend. When [forensic psychiatrist Terry] Kupers evaluated the residents in Unit 32 in 2002, which reeked of malfunctioning toilets, he found that about 100 of them had severe undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illnesses. They hallucinated, threw feces at the guards, and howled through the night; in response, they received punishment, not treatment. After listening to the accounts of inmates who described the facility as a hellhole and insane asylum, the prison authorities gradually reduced the segregated population from 1,000 to 150, upon which violence plummeted by 70 percent.

The Mississippi experience led to a re-examination of the rationale behind solitary confinement in Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington. Maine cut its segregated population by almost 60 per cent, and made it onerous to keep a prisoner in confinement for more than 72 hours. The Colorado prison authorities reviewed their segregation practices and, in 2012, announced the closure of a 316-bed administrative segregation unit that will save the state $13.6 million this year. This January, prison authorities in Illinois closed down its notoriously repressive supermax, Tamms Correctional Center, which cost the state $26 million annually, or about $64,800 per inmate per year to run.

In a history of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, David Kidd conveys some fascinating details about the origins of solitary in the US:

As foreboding as it was, Eastern State was designed from the beginning to implement new, more humane theories about crime and punishment. Presaging many of today’s arguments on corrections reform, the emphasis was much less on punishment and more on rehabilitation. Philadelphians, drawing on their Quaker roots, had long argued for better treatment of prisoners. They believed that if prisoners were left alone in complete silence, with nothing to occupy their minds but thoughts of their misdeeds, they would become genuinely penitent. (Hence, the building was known as a “penitentiary.”)

The place was utterly silent. Guards walked the halls with socks over their shoes. The wheels on the wagons that brought food down the long corridors were covered in leather. For 23 hours of every day, inmates were confined to a 7.5- by-12-foot cell with a church-like vaulted ceiling and small skylight. For the remaining hour they were allowed outside within their own small exercise area. Inmates in adjoining cells were never allowed outside at the same time, and any communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden.

In order to implement these new ideas in prison reform, Eastern State boasted a number of design innovations. Because each prisoner would never leave his cell, water for washing had to be brought to him and a flush toilet provided. (By comparison, running water didn’t make it into the White House until 1833.) A rudimentary system provided heat to each cell – something many Philadelphia residents couldn’t afford themselves.

Recent Dish on solitary confinement here. More posts from the archive here, here, here, and here.