The recent editorial about the tragic death of Emily Butler, who died by suicide while in solitary confinement, highlights for the public the hidden story behind a cruel practice (“The lonesome death of Emily Butler,” Nov. 20). Isolated confinement goes by many names. No matter what it is called, it means 22-to-24 hours a day of isolated confinement in a very small cell alone or with a cellmate (not of one’s choosing) with severe sensory deprivation. In 2016, 68 percent of the state prison population spent an average of 50-60 days in isolated confinement. Clearly, this sort of isolation is used routinely and not as a last resort for the “worst of the worst.” Those most at risk are the mentally ill for whom there is broad agreement that isolation severely exacerbates their condition.
Advocates are supporting legislation this year to restrict by law this form of punishment. Since review of the practice began in the late 1990s, reviewers have recommended reductions in the use of this practice without success. In 2012, the Vera Institute of Justice made 10 recommendations. At that time, Maryland’s daily average in isolation was 8.5 percent, twice the national average. As best could be determined, only one change was implemented — separating those in protective custody from those in disciplinary segregation.
In 2015, the National Institute of Corrections made recommendations similar to those made earlier. The daily average in isolation was 9 percent — still more than twice the national average. We have yet to see those recommendations implemented, although some work is in progress. That is a start, but more must be done. Now.
Suzanne H. O'Hatnick, Baltimore
The writer is chair of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.
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