America is a prison-building dynamo. Always has been. Houses of detention went up alongside houses of worship as nearly every colonial settlement used incarceration as a fitting and necessary means to address its miscreants. (Case in point, Boston had barely 40 homes when it built its first “house of detention”.)
We came by our penal Calvinism by way of our English heritage. England – our puritanical parent in criminal punishment – imprinted deep in the colonial psyche a law-over-grace mindset that shaped legal systems from Massachusetts to Georgia.
But while our thinking about prisons has varied, not so the penchant to keep erecting them. And filling them.
We now warehouse more wayward than anybody else on the planet; but this was not always the case.
Four decades ago the number of Americans in prison was fewer than 300,000. Today that number is a shocking 2.2 million. Do the math with the government data and that 2.2 million translates to around 1 in 32 persons who are directly involved with the nation’s corrections systems.
The correlative if not causal agents related to this spike are many and obvious: rise in poverty; deinstitutionalization; failed drug policies; racial biases in sentencing.
We can argue the finer points of how America rose and remains atop the world’s penitential heap; but not the resulting overload on federal and state prison funding, especially that related to housing, long-term, highest-risk prisoners.
The search for more efficient management of high-risk populations gave rise to the phenomenon known as the supermax – facilities designed to segregate inmates deemed a risk to national security.
Conceived and marketed in the belief that it would heighten security while lowering costs, the supermax (short for super-maximum) is a postmodern Alcatraz in which prisoners are kept in solitary confinement between 22 and 23 hours.
Solitary confinement is the basic rubric of supermax philosophy. It’s a divide-and-conquer world where visitation is greatly limited and “video visiting” is the standard means of communication.
Since coming online, supermax isolationism has rightfully been assailed by activists, attorneys and even former staff. What it promised in security and efficiency was more than offset by severe social deprivation.
After fits and starts, legal critical mass was reached in 1995 when an anti-solitary confinement case reached federal court. But while the circuit judge found that conditions at a Pelican Bay, Calif., supermax “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” the lower court precedent won the day: the states may determine their incarceration practices.
This patently inhumane and potentially unconstitutional approach to imprisonment may not stand, at least not in current form.
Several states have begun reducing their use of solitary confinement. And in June, US Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) held a Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the use of solitary confinement, ending the proceedings with a promise to introduce legislation aimed at uniform limits.
Progress is halting. The nation cannot overnight break free from its long past of law over grace, rehabilitation over punishment. But if the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment still applies, it’s time to call the excessive application of solitary confinement what it is: torture by another name.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email donaldlrollins@ gmail.com.
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2012
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