A heavy, forbidding door with a small rectangular window. A shabby bed next to a sink. A toilet across the small room. Blank walls and near-silent atmosphere. The few sounds that reach inside the enclosed room sound magnified. You hear unfamiliar noises, and in the ever-present fluorescent lighting you see things that aren’t there. Days are marked by the guards who bring food through a hole in the door. Beyond that interaction there is no time, and no escape from the solace of this empty room.
Welcome to solitary confinement.
Isolating a prisoner for long periods of time in these sorts of circumstances can cause a serious decline in mental health. Studies have shown that people in solitary confinement may experience auditory and visual hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, increased risk of suicide, and distortions of time and perception, among other things. And that’s for adults.
Juveniles who are subjected to solitary confinement are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of prolonged isolation.
Kalief Browder was 16 when he was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to a jail in New York City. He spent three years in prison but nearly two of them in solitary confinement. After he was released, Browder tried to re-enter society. But he couldn’t escape the isolation. He recreated the conditions of his confinement by locking himself in his room for long periods of time. Large groups made him uncomfortable.
Browder killed himself at the age of 22.
In January, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles and the mentally ill. In an editorial he wrote for The Washington Post, Obama writes “In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?”
But what is left out of this statement is that even when prisoners don’t experience solitary confinement, they’re very likely to return to prison when they’ve been let out. According to the National Institute of Justice, a study tracked 404,638 released prisoners in 30 states. Researchers found within three years of release, 67.8 percent of prisoners were rearrested. The way the criminal justice system works in America doesn’t rehabilitate its prisoners, so when they leave prison it’s hard for them to become “productive members of society.” It leaves them with fewer chances of acquiring a job after they are released and, in some states, even strips them of certain rights, like voting.
People should serve their time, but once they have paid for their mistakes they should be able to reintegrate into society without the toll of mental health issues, or being left jobless because of the stigma around incarceration. Prisons are supposed to be correctional facilities that help people amend their wrongdoings, but if more and more people are returning to serve jail time, are our prisons truly effective?
Banning solitary confinement for juveniles should be the first step in a bigger plan to reform the current criminal justice system.
Progress in this area could be impeded by the belief that prisoners made a choice to commit a crime and shouldn’t deserve special treatment or certain rights. Prisoner rights aren’t very widely discussed, but when you think about the amount of money being spent to keep people locked up, it’s easy to see how pervasive of an issue mass incarceration can be in this country.
Americans currently pay $80 billion to keep more than two million people incarcerated. If giving people second chances to improve their lives isn’t enough incentive to rethink and reform the way criminals are handled, maybe they should think of all the money being spent on ineffective methods of correction.
The problems don’t end with those who are incarcerated. It’s people who never get a fair trial or are convicted of something they do. It’s people like Browder, who was incarcerated for three years and never stood trial for being accused of stealing a backpack. It’s former prisoners who are still haunted by their time there. It’s people who can’t move forward afterward. Instead of helping these prisoners reshape their lives, the system makes things more difficult.
The criminal justice system is failing so many people, and only recently — through interest in documentaries like “Making a Murderer” and the #BlackLivesMatter movement — is the general population paying attention.
In his editorial, Obama says that a bipartisan effort is looking to reform sentencing laws and expanding reentry programs. It’s time for the government to catch up.