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Change can't come soon enough for those tens of thousands still languishing in solitary's inhumane conditions. (Photo: Jonathan Haeber/flickr/cc)

Cruelty of Solitary Detention Challenged as Obama Pushes State-Level Reform

After announcing overhaul of federal prisons' use of solitary confinement, Obama now focuses energy on pushing for more urgent state-level reforms

Nika Knight

When President Obama in January announced plans to limit federal prisons' use of solitary confinement—a practice a UN expert described as "torture" and "cruel"—human rights activists applauded.

Those activists were still skeptical, however, that such a measure would reach far enough to enact meaningful change, as the vast majority of solitary confinement happens in state-level prisons. A total of about 90,000 people are imprisoned in solitary in state prisons, compared to about 10,000 incarcerated in segregated cells in federal facilities. (The nationwide total of approximately 100,000 people in solitary confinement surpasses the total prison populations of countries such as France, Japan, Germany, and the UK, as the Yale Law Journal points out.)

"Most of the battle is at the state level."
—Amy Fettig, ACLU senior staff counsel

The White House is currently urging states to adopt Obama's reforms. "Without support at state level," the Guardian notes, Obama "is stymied in his wider ambitions."

Roy Austin, the president's deputy assistant for urban affairs, justice and opportunity, and "a leading architect of the administration’s drive to reduce the use of solitary confinement," as the Guardian writes, told the newspaper that the federal government understood how necessary it was to ensure states would also institute reforms.

"We know a lot of change is local," Austin said. "In the criminal justice space we represent a small percentage of the number of people arrested and incarcerated, so we are here to provide technical assistance, to learn from states that are getting it right and to serve as a shining example of what can be done."

The White House has pushed for local reform on multiple stages: it has hosted a round table discussion on the issue for state leaders and another for NGO advocacy groups, incorporated its new "guiding principles" into the National Institute of Corrections training program, and worked with organizations as diverse as the prison reform group Vera Institute of Justice in New York and national labor groups such the American Correctional Association and the Association of Correctional Administrators.

"Most of the battle is at the state level," Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s national prison project, told the Guardian. "Having President Obama speak out on this issue is huge, and having the largest prison system in the country, the federal one, move to reduce solitary confinement is very meaningful, but that still leaves us having to go state by state, calling on individual jurisdictions to change."

There have been recent reports of specific cases where Obama's push for change had tangible effects. In Tennessee, for example, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on Wednesday against the Department of Children’s Services and the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center to prevent the facility from keeping a 15-year-old boy with developmental disabilities in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

"The unnamed boy was ordered into confinement on April 19 by Rutherford County Juvenile Judge Donna Davenport at the request of Rutherford County detention officials, according to the lawsuit," the Tennessean reports. "He remained there 23-hours per day for two days in a cell containing only a mattress and toilet, with no access to reading materials or other activities and with the only window covered by a board."

The boy's lawyers and his mother are pushing for an end to all solitary confinement for children in the prison, citing Obama's recent push for such reforms.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports, "Colorado has slashed the number of inmates it holds in isolation over the past five years by giving prisoners in segregation cells the chance to claw their way back to the general prison population, including via activities outside their cell, education classes and counselling. [...] At least 13 other states have already rewritten their rules or are in the process of pushing bills through their legislatures to cut down on the practice."

"We're paying twice as much a day to keep them in solitary and we're doing everything in our power to make their behavior more and more out of control—and then they get out."
—Dr. Stuart Grassian, psychologist
Other states are falling behind—such as Louisiana, where Albert Woodfox, the last of the Angola Three, was released from decades of solitary confinement in February. "We've put this solitary-confinement issue before American people, before the people of the world," Woodfox said upon his release.

"Another is Texas," writes the Guardian, "where the ACLU has calculated there are 6,564 prisoners in bare concrete cells with solid steel doors. And then there is Florida, which holds more than 12,000 prisoners in segregation—more than the whole federal prison system."

And change can't come soon enough for those tens of thousands still languishing in solitary's inhumane conditions. One such prisoner in Washington state, who recently heard a radio report about Obama's efforts to limit solitary confinment, reached out to local news outlet to share his own ordeal in solitary.

The inmate, Kyle Payment, has spent his entire adulthood in solitary confinement: currently age 30, he was first sent to solitary when he was only 18. The first time he was sent to a juvenile correction facility—which he described as a prison—he was just 11.

Payment says he's had 18 extra years added to his sentence for assaults that he committed while in solitary. He claims that he can't stop himself from being violent; he's been driven insane by his years spent in an 80 square foot cell without any human contact.

"Payment was evaluated by psychologist Dr. Stuart Grassian, the nation's top SHU Syndrome expert, who has evaluated hundreds of inmates over the past 30 years," reports.

"These people were so clearly ill, frightened of how ill they were," Grassian says. "Things like suicidal attempts, periods of confusion and disorientation. The symptoms they were describing were really unusual. They weren't the kind of things you see in ordinary clinical practice. Symptoms of stupor and delirium, disoriented, confused, agitated, paranoid, hallucinations in multiple spheres, feeling bugs crawling up their skin."

"This is the worst thing we could do for our community to keep ourselves safe," Grassian continued. "We're paying twice as much a day to keep them in solitary and we're doing everything in our power to make their behavior more and more out of control—and then they get out. It just makes no sense."

"I'm not innocent. I've done my fair share of wrong," Payment said. "I acknowledge that. But at the same time, I think there's a bigger scheme going on, as far as solitary confinement goes."

Indeed, an ACLU report details the vast profits being made from the nation's skyrocketing incarceration rates of the past four decades.

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