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March 11, 2012

Reductions in "The Gray Box" another silver lining of lean corrections budgets

JP-SOLITARY-4-popupOn the front-page of my New York Times today is this lengthy article headlined "Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity."   The piece reinforces my sense that a down economy and lean budget times have had a number of positive impacts on criminal justice system, and here are excerpts:

The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so.  On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades.  More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift is economics.  Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as conventional prisons are.  They are an expense that many recession-plagued states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.

Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall prison violence.  Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies suggest.

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as “hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.  “That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said. By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes.  “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” he now says.

Coincidentally, the Dart Society, which describes its mission as seeking "to connect and support journalists worldwide who advance the compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice," has its Spring 2012 issue devoted to the topic of solitary confinement via a multimedia investigation titled "The Gray Box." The video and article in the series make a fitting and moving companion to this notable new piece from the New York Times.

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March 11, 2012 at 01:15 PM | Permalink


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I'd like to see a mandatory DP brought back for the murder of prison guards by inmates.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 11, 2012 7:42:28 PM

works for me fed! IF the same law requires any guard who kills an inmate be turned over the said inmates for THEIR execution!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 12, 2012 2:09:25 AM

Yet another colossally stupid remark by rodsmith!

Posted by: alpino | Mar 12, 2012 2:20:59 AM

sorry alpino i take it you have missed the 100's of reports that have come out recently showing the massive amount of assault and other crimes against prisoners by their guards!

You can't have it both ways. If we demand the right to kill an inmate who has killed a guard. Then they should have the right to kill those who KILL them!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 12, 2012 12:26:14 PM

That's completely absurd. So, a guard killing an inmate in self-defense or in defense of other inmates should be punished by turning the guard over to a prisoner lynch mob? That's plain dumb.

Posted by: alpino | Mar 15, 2012 1:35:11 AM

not really. and i'm not talking about lynch mobs. The state claims the authority to punish inmates who violate their law and harm guards. All i'm saying is that when guards harm inmates that they be punished by the inmates they violated. maybe if they have that hanging over their heads they might keep their hands to themselves.

Plus of course it would not need to be done. If the state would stop hiding and protecting the guards from their crimes!

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