Time to End the Overuse of Solitary Confinement
Horrific prison conditions that defy all norms of decency are nothing new. Nor is it new for prisoners to attempt to take matters into their own hands, to convince their jailers to treat them like human beings. But what is new (or new, at least, to me) is the focus an attention of members of the media and the public. The hunger strike by prisoners throughout California's prison system (which is one of the largest prison systems in the world) began as a protest of the conditions at the state's special housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison. There, prisoners are subject to isolation for 22 hours per day, which causes many of them to decompensate and to lose touch with reality. The hunger strike has been covered by the New York Times, which also published an op-ed column on the use of long-term isolation, as well as four eloquent letters to the editor responding to the issue. The LA Times has published an editorial demanding greater access to prisoners and more information about their conditions.
Here in Maine, we continue to build on the successful changes that have taken place at the Maine State Prison's Special Management Unit. While it would be difficult to duplicate all the twists and turns that Maine's anti-solitary campaign took, we are pleased that our work is serving as a model for advocates across the country who want to reduce the use of long-term solitary confinement. Alysia and I spoke to a nationwide conference call this afternoon to share our insights on solitary confinement. One of the important messages--maybe the most important messages--we shared was that improving prison conditions and reducing the use of long-term isolation is possible, and that the Maine experience of working with activists and advocates, prisoners and corrections officials, is illustrative of one possible avenue for change. Hopefully, the public's attention will not shift away until significant improvements in our correction systems can be achieved.