Tim DeChristopher's Stint in Prison's 'Hole' Raises Questions about Solitary Confinement

Tim DeChristopher's stint in solitary confinement didn't last long. Shortly after Rolling Stone broke the news that the climate activist had been locked up for using the word "threat" in an email correspondence, the phone lines at the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., were clogged with thousands of calls protesting his treatment.

"Rolling Stone got him out," Patrick Shea, DeChristopher's lawyer, announced after he was quietly moved back to the minimum security camp where he is serving a two-year sentence for a pair of 3rd degree felonies.

But for most of the 25,000 Americans in solitary confinement, things aren't so easy. DeChristopher's treatment illustrates what some see as a disturbing trend in the American criminal justice system. While solitary confinement was designed to keep the general prison population safe from volatile inmates, prisoner advocates say many prisons instead use isolation as a disciplinary tool.

"What would have happened to Tim if no one was watching?" Shea said.

People don't need to be deemed a safety threat to get sent to solitary confinement, Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi's commissioner of corrections, told Public Radio International.

"It is a punishment," he said. "And a lot of times, if you don't have an accountability system in place ... they could be placed in there for something as simple as not cleaning up their area or breaking chow line."

Prisoner advocates find the practice repulsive because research shows isolation can exacerbate -- or even cause -- mental health conditions. In the case of Bradley Manning, who was locked up in isolation for at least 11 months after allegedly releasing classified documents to WikiLeaks, Juan Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, called solitary confinement "one degree less than torture."

Families and allies of California prisoners last week started a petition calling for a U.N. investigation of the state's use of solitary confinement.

"[N]ot only do California prisoners face cruel and dehumanizing long-term and indefinite confinement in small concrete cells with no windows, no natural light and no furniture, they also endure frequent episodes of cruelty by guards, inadequate medical care, entirely inadequate mental health services, inadequate access to the outdoors and sunshine, inadequate food, inadequate access to legal counsel, inadequate visitation with friends and family and no opportunities to work or engage in productive activities of any type," petitioners wrote. "They are effectively locked in a concrete small space that becomes a 'living coffin' in which many have been confined for many years, even decades."

A growing number of prisons across the country are rethinking the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool, according to The New York Times.

In Mississippi, prison officials have cut the use of solitary confinement by more than half since 2007, from 1,000 prisoners to just 300. Inmates are reportedly better behaved and less violent.

"If you treat people like animals, that's exactly the way they'll behave," Epps told the Times.

Many in the corrections industry maintain, though, solitary confinement is necessary and does not violate human rights.

The decision to send someone to solitary confinement is not "taken lightly," said Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"They are the people who pose the greatest threat for other inmates," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They are sent there because of their violent behavior inside the prison or because of their membership in a criminal gang."

DeChristopher's lawyer told Rolling Stone he hopes the issue will be further investigated. In the email in question, Shea said DeChristopher was simply threatening to return a donation a contributor made to his defense fund. He was sent to isolation after the prison warden said he was contacted by an unnamed member of Congress.

"There needs to be an investigation into how a call from a congressman got Tim thrown in isolation and what that says about the American justice system," Shea said.