What duty do we owe to the men and women we incarcerate in the United States - or just here in Wisconsin? Most people might say that as law-abiding citizens, we owe no duty and bear no responsibility. An oft-repeated mantra says "don't do the crime if you can't do the time."
But for advocates of prison reform - especially regarding juvenile offenders - length of incarceration is not the only pressing issue. An issue that receives far too little attention is the use and abuse of solitary confinement.
This was recently discussed in a Huffington Post column written by a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The author, a man named Savion Castro, is also member of a growing national group called the Student Alliance for Prison Reform.
Although it may not sound very harsh at first, solitary confinement is considered by many to be a form of torture. Human beings are a social species, and we need human contact in order to survive and maintain mental and psychological health.
Savion points out that solitary often involves putting inmates into 7x9 cells for at least 22 hours each day. In addition to being isolated from other people, inmates are often denied reading and writing materials and other material they could mentally engage with.
Solitary confinement is difficult for inmates of any age, but it is especially torturous to young offenders, some of whom are as young as 13 years old. Data show that juveniles and young adults who are put in solitary confinement are at increased risk for inhibited mental development, inhibited physical development and suicide. Anthony Kennedy, a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, has noted that "solitary confinement literally drives men mad."
There are certainly instances in which corrections officers place juveniles in solitary for reasons of punishment. Whether this is appropriate is a matter of debate. But there are also many instances in which young offenders are put in solitary confinement in order to protect them from adult inmates and prison rape. This "protection" is merely another form of trauma.
It will take time to enact large-scale reforms to our criminal justice system. But ending solitary confinement is an important change that could and should be implemented right away.
Source: The Huffington Post, "Ending Youth Solitary: Crime & Punishment, Not Crime & Torture," Savion Castro, April 9, 2015