The lonesome death of Emily Butler

We don't know much about 29-year-old Emily Butler other than that she died last week at the Maryland women’s prison in Jessup. But we can guess that her death was probably preventable. Butler is the latest victim of a cruel and unusual form of extreme punishment known as solitary confinement, which the state of Maryland insists doesn’t even exist officially in its facilities but which nevertheless continues to take a terrible toll on the inmates subjected to whatever euphemism the state uses to describe the prolonged isolation of prisoners from human contact. It’s past time for the state to abolish this inhumane and counterproductive practice, which is demonstrably harmful, but doesn’t make prison inmates or staff any safer.

This is what is known for certain: State officials say she was found dead earlier this month after apparently committing suicide. An officer making rounds noticed her cell window was covered, a violation of prison rules; he called out to Butler but received no answer. When officers entered her cell she was unresponsive and later was pronounced dead at the scene.

It’s unclear exactly what offense landed Butler in prison at Jessup. The Sun’s Justin Fenton reported that a corrections department spokesman said she received a 14-year suspended sentence for a theft scheme in Somerset County, and court records showed she was serving time for second-degree arson in a case in which she had been on probation. Both cases involved serious felonies, but there was no indiction either was marked by acts of violence. Last week corrections officials couldn’t say why Butler was transferred from the prison’s general inmate population to segregated status or how long she had been there before her death, although they did confirm that she had been at the Jessup facility since 2014. But prisoners’ rights advocates suggested the switch to solitary may have been the catalyst that tipped her over the edge.

Whatever the exact nature of Butler’s crimes, she didn’t deserve to die for them — and it’s very likely she would not have if had she not been confined in a way that isolated her from human contact. Even the most hardened criminals eventually break down under the pressure of prolonged sensory deprivation, and researchers who have studied the psychological effects of isolation have found that the cognitive and emotional losses inflicted on inmates who emerge from the experience resemble those of patients who have suffered traumatic brain damage.

That’s why the United Nations Human Rights Council has unequivocally condemned the use of solitary confinement to discipline prisoners as a form of torture no less brutalizing to the human spirit than waterboarding, electric shock or physical mutilation. The American Psychiatric Association has called for restricting its use to no longer than 30 days because of the irreparable harms victims suffer. It’s unconscionable that Maryland is among the handful of states that lead the nation in the routine use of such punishments and that Maryland has resisted even acknowledging it has a problem to the point that for years it refused to collect the kind of data that would indicate its scope and impact.

It’s tempting to dismiss Emily Butler’s death as an unfortunate accident in an otherwise well run corrections system where such mistakes are rare. But the reality is this is the fourth reported case of an inmate committing suicide this year, and it appears to be part of a pattern linking such deaths to the kinds of physical confinement inmates experience behind prison walls. There’s a difference between firm disciplinary measures that help ensure the safety of inmates and staff and cruel or unusual punishments that in effect amount to human rights abuses. Maryland needs to constantly rethink where that line should be drawn — and then make sure it stays on the right side of it. Emily Butler and others like her shouldn’t have to die by their own hands in order to teach the state that lesson.

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