Solitary confinement is unethical
As our understanding of crime prevention, punishment and reform has evolved, America’s prison system has been slow to adapt. In many ways, prisons remain little more than holding cells, a means to isolate criminals from the rest of society, while offering token measures for rehabilitation and preparation for life outside of a cage.
The state of Texas, already infamous as the execution capital of the country, lags even further behind other states in regards to having a prison system purposely built under a doctrine of severity and harshness. It is a system that relies far too heavily on dehumanizing practices.
This results in a revolving door for some inmates who essentially never leave the criminal justice system. Most notably, prisons in Texas posses a custody level known as “administrative segregation.” This is, essentially, mandatory solitary confinement irrespective of the criminal’s offense.
With conditions that many would find unsuitable for an animal, administrative segregation is a form of punishment at one of the cruelest levels, one that renders a released inmate worse off than when they entered.
Imagine spending 23 hours of every day alone in a nine-by-seven-foot concrete room. You are allowed one hour a day, again alone, in a recreational room that is basically just a bigger cell with a pull-up bar and few other pieces of exercise equipment. Keep in mind, though, that every time you exit your cell you are strip searched and handcuffed, and searched once again before reentering.
You have no access to television, but you do have a radio. Your meals are given to you through a slot in the door, and communication with others is reduced to shouting across a cellblock. Now imagine living this way for 25 years.
The logical assumption is that such conditions would only be implemented against the most vile and dangerous criminals, but administrative segregation is actually mandated for any convict belonging to a so-called “security threat group.” The list includes 12 gangs and racist affiliations whose members are deemed to pose an additional danger to other inmates.
As a result, over 5,000 inmates are permanently put in this form of confinement with another 4,000 or so placed there for part of their prison term.
Incredibly, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice considers administrative segregation as preventative and not disciplinary. That is to say, the inmates are not being punished for being in a gang; it is just that any gang-related activity is being preempted.
In reality, this system adds a level of brutality to a standard prison term that can only be viewed as furthering punishment.
Like any form of solitary confinement, administrative segregation has the potential to cause severe and lasting psychological trauma. Medical doctors report cases of detachment from reality, severe depression and paranoid delusions as a result of long-term isolation.
Tests reveal changes in the brain activity of people kept in solitary confinement that are sometimes indistinguishable from comatose patients.
In addition, there are essentially no opportunities for any meaningful rehabilitation, as inmates do not have access to instruction programs or group based therapy.
Given that those that are placed into administrative segregation cannot be paroled, there is no incentive for behavioral improvements and nothing to deter other acts of criminality.
Those who break the law must be penalized for their actions, and while their freedom may be revoked, their rights as a person should not be. Arguing in favor of administrative segregation is to advocate for abuse and the perpetuation of criminal behavior.
Prisons are rightfully intended to punish criminal behavior, but they have the potential to serve as an instrument of reform.
Instead of merely caging people, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice should promote programs that offer alternatives to the criminal lifestyle and chances to better the inmates’ conditions.
Otherwise, they continue to run dangerously close to turning a punishment into a crime itself.
Marc Anderson is a third-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected].