New Jersey governor Chris Christie last week vetoed and angrily denounced a measure that had passed the state legislature that would have limited the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey's prisons. Using the euphemism "restrictive housing," Christie said that solitary was nothing like opponents had described it, and he promised that there would be no curbs on the practice. For the record, the vetoed law would have restricted solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in any two-month period. It would also have banned the practice for pregnant women, the mentally ill, and children. Also for the record, the United Nations has declared that solitary confinement, as it is practiced in the U.S., is "torture."
Christie, a career prosecutor, can't seem to break the mold. Every prosecutor wants to be governor. Every governor wants to be president. And no matter how low one's approval ratings are -- 21 percent in Christie's case -- they always think that being "tough on crime" will be their golden ticket to higher office. But I can tell you that Christie is either disingenuous or he's brain-dead.
Solitary is exactly what it sounds like. A prisoner is kept in a small cell, usually six by 10 feet, alone, for 23 hours a day. For one hour a day, he may be taken into a similarly-sized cage outside, where he can walk in circles before being taken back inside. The idea is to keep the prisoner from having any human interaction. Even the outdoor cage can usually be opened and closed remotely.
State prison systems across the country, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, use solitary confinement to destroy people. Those who have been through it call it a "living death." Prisoners in solitary routinely experience "intense anxiety, paranoia, depression, memory loss, hallucinations, and other perceptual distortions," according to The New York Times.
Many Americans think that solitary is reserved for the worst and most dangerous criminals in the country. In most cases, that's simply not true. Solitary is used not for the safety of inmates or prison guards, but as a punishment and as an expression of power by guards.
For example, a prisoner can be sent to solitary for "insolence" or for "investigation." What does that mean? It means anything the guard wants it to mean. Talk back to a guard? Insolence! Take more than 15 minutes to eat your meal? Solitary! An anonymous source accuses you of gambling? You go straight to solitary, likely for weeks or even months.
And what happens, in those and almost all other cases, is that the prison's internal investigators will begin an investigation. They are supposed to have 90 days to do it, after which the prisoner would be released back into the prison's general population. But, in fact, the investigators can keep renewing the 90-day solitary period for a full year. That's an entire year living in a small grey room the size of a walk-in closet with no human contact. It would make just about anybody crazy.
If the prisoner is fortunate enough to have an attorney, or a family that cares about him, who can press prison authorities on the prisoner's behalf, the prison will simply transfer him to another facility, where the whole solitary count starts all over again. That really is torture.
A year ago, President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles. That's a good start. But Donald Trump can overturn that policy with the stroke of a pen. Besides, the real problem is at the state level. And until each and every state legislature is willing to address this issue as one that is counterproductive to a safe and progressive prison environment and as a human rights issue, there won't be any real change. In the meantime, the Chris Christies of the world, regardless of how unpopular they may be, will win out.
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