Why solitary confinement is an absolute necessity

A blanket ban on solitary for low-level and juvenile offenders, in my opinion, is not an optimal choice nor is it conducive to public safety

The article by Kira Lerner entitled “Obama Highlights the Destructive Impact of Solitary Confinement While Announcing New Rules” addresses President Obama’s view on solitary confinement and the initiatives he wants to take in order to reduce the utilization of such a measure. This article, to me, articulates that solitary confinement is hyper-utilized, abused, and is causing more harm than good (overall). Before I delve into this topic, I would first like to provide a brief insight into the correctional system and paint a picture of life on the inside.

To put it simply, life can be tumultuous behind the wall. Sexual and physical assaults, extortion, robbery, theft, and drug possession/use can occur at high rates. These rates are most likely higher than what is reported due to the ominous phenomena referred to as the “dark figure” of crime. 

Just like on the street, many crimes are never reported to police. Prisons and jails across America are plagued with the convict code and inmates are bread to not talk to police and to handle their respective affairs personally. The infrastructure of security threat groups can be so dynamic, so intricate, that they have created their own languages, writings, and symbols. Stabbings (or other “hits”) can occur due to power struggles, disrespect, or territory disputes. Prisons are dangerous and we as corrections professionals are tasked with the responsibility of infiltrating these systems, maintaining safety and security, and managing otherwise uncontrollable populations.  

Solitary Confinement is an Absolute Necessity
From my experience as a Corrections Officer, I can say that I have seen many types of offenders locked-up behind the wall. I have seen almost every spectrum of crime ranging from writing hot checks to first-degree murder. I have seen men who are first-time offenders who have made mistakes and I have seen hardened sociopaths with no regard for human life or dignity. And after all my dealings with this wide spectrum of offenders, I can conclude that solitary confinement is an absolute necessity in our nation’s prison system.

Yes, I will agree that the rehabilitative module is of the utmost importance. It is crucial for rehabilitation to be the ultimate goal of corrections. To me, inmates need to learn, adapt, and reintegrate. Less restrictive community-like settings are pivotal to this process and should be more frequently utilized. However, what about the predators? What about the inmates who live off of fear and intimidation? How do we control the aggressors; offenders that have completely accepted the convict code and possess absolutely no moral compass? Community-like settings geared toward rehabilitation can allow such inmates to have a “field day,” so to speak, on the rest of the population.

We have maximum security institutions all throughout the country. That being said, how can we exert control over the offenders in such facilities that still commit severe infractions? The safety and security of an institution is corrections 101. Not all offenders can be in rehabilitative modules and, furthermore, not all inmates housed in maximum security facilities can be housed in general population. How do we address the trauma inflicted on the remainder of the inmate population by certain inmates who are uncontrollable? Inmates who are physically or sexually assaulted can also experience psychological trauma, especially male inmates that are raped. How can we justify allowing predatory inmates access to other inmates?

Prisons are the Defacto Asylum
I believe wholeheartedly that President Obama’s mission to review and bolster mental health needs in the prison system are both commendable and well overdue. Prisons were not initially created in order to house mentally ill offenders — that is why asylums were utilized. But, after de-institutionalization took place, prisons eventually became the “defacto asylum” and inmates with mental health needs were housed with common criminals. If prisons are not set-up to house such offenders, then administrators’ hands become tied when attempting to rectify the situation. The view becomes simple, use solitary for a small population percentage in order to protect the staff and the remainder of the inmate population.

In my experience, there is often-times (if not always) a step-down from solitary confinement. Inmates will be reviewed at established terms and attempts will be made to transition them into less restrictive housing. However, the inmates who are unstable, violent, and unpredictable will often commit infractions that will expedite their transit back to solitary. I disagree with the ban on solitary confinement for juvenile and low-level offenders in federal prisons. If we are labeling “low-level offenders” pursuant to their respective charges, then we are seriously underestimating the convict code. Street charges do not always translate into inmate behavior. Also, it is important to note that this microcosm of society is especially susceptible to violence. Life behind the wall relies on a new set of norms/values and non-violent people can resort to violence in order to survive.

As it pertains to juveniles, solitary may be used for a host of different reasons. Juveniles usually fall into two categories: predator or prey. Protective custody usually entails solitary confinement so that an inmate can be protected from predators. Is there a plan of action regarding inmates that are prey? Is there an established procedure to separate them in order to preserve their safety? Solitary is the best response the prison system has right now in order to protect inmates. It should be noted that many inmates request solitary (protective custody) or act poorly to be sanctioned to solitary in order to have a one-man cell and not have to deal with the rest of the inmate population. 

In summary, a blanket ban on solitary for low-level and juvenile offenders, in my opinion, is not an optimal choice nor is it conducive to public safety. Corrections Officers are often understaffed, overworked, and outnumbered. Extreme assaultive conduct, active psychosis, and/or other dangerous behavior need to be identified, confronted, and isolated. Our prisons are not equipped to handle such severe cases of mental instability, but that does nothing to stop the flow of afflicted inmates into our corrections systems. We have to be security minded and, despite all the external influences/circumstances, adapt and overcome. Mental health is a severe issue and it’s about time alternative avenues be explored. 

Bayer, P., Pintoff, R., & Pozen, D. E. (2003). Building criminal capital behind bars: Social learning in juvenile corrections (No. 864). Center Discussion Paper.

Wilkinson, D. L. (2001). Violent events and social identity: Specifying the relationship between respect and masculinity in inner-city youth violence. Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, 8, 235-272.

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