Isolated confinement [Editorial]

In January, Rick Raemisch was brought shackled and handcuffed to a state penitentiary in Colorado and deposited in a 13-by-17-foot cell with nothing in it except a bed, toilet and sink screwed to the floor. His restraints were removed, the door slammed shut behind him and then he was alone.

Mr. Raemisch had committed no crime. He was, in fact, the recently appointed head of Colorado's corrections department, and as he later wrote in a New York Times op-ed, he hoped that by putting himself in an inmate's place he might get "a better sense of what solitary confinement was like, and what it did to the prisoners who were housed there, sometimes for years." For the next 20 hours, his life was hell.


The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that at any given time in the U.S. there are least 20,000 inmates, and possibly more, in solitary confinement — a cruel form of extreme punishment that isolates some prisoners from any human contact for months, years or even decades, and that the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned as torture by another name. The American Psychiatric Association calls for banning the practice beyond 30 days because of the damage prolonged sensory deprivation and lack of stimulation cause to inmates' brains, which is similar to that seen in victims of other forms of traumatic brain injury.

In Maryland, corrections officials deny using solitary confinement to discipline unruly or troublesome prisoners. But the techniques it uses to control inmates amount to virtually the same thing — the polite term for the practice is "segregation." Moreover, while other states are moving to ban or limit the practice of isolating prisoners for prolonged periods — either alone or with another inmate in the same cell — Maryland has resisted acknowledging it has a problem or collecting the kind of data that would indicate its scope and impact.


Earlier this year, bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would have required the state to conduct an independent investigation of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' use of isolated confinement died in committee before they reached the House and Senate floors. We urge lawmakers to take the issue up again next year and pass legislation that would open up to public scrutiny the policy's violation of international norms and potential human rights abuses.

State corrections officials have been able to avoid such scrutiny up to now because the term "solitary confinement" appears nowhere in state regulations governing prisoner treatment or in the U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for the federal Bureau of Prisons. Instead, the practice is masked behind such bland bureaucratic phrases as "administrative segregation," "disciplinary segregation" or "protective custody." Officials also say that most inmates on segregated tiers are confined with a cell mate rather than in solitary. But that just means two people are undergoing a traumatic response to isolation; the effect is as detrimental to them both as if they were alone.

Mr. Raemisch, the Colorado prisons chief, was himself never officially in solitary confinement either but in the rather more benign sounding "Ad Seg," or administrative segregation. Yet he quickly discovered that its effect on his mind was just as devastating.

"I couldn't make sense of any of it, and was left feeling twitchy and paranoid," he wrote. "I kept waiting for the lights to turn off, to signal the end of the day. But the lights did not shut off. I began to count the small holes carved in the walls. Tiny grooves made by inmates who'd chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them." Toward the end of his 20-hours in isolation he felt "as if I'd been there for days. I sat with my mind. How long would it take before Ad Seg chipped that away? I don't know, but I'm confident that it would be a battle I would lose."

Last year the Texas legislature passed a law requiring corrections officials to study the use and impact of isolated confinement, and Gov. Rick Perry signed it. This year New York moved to sharply limit the practice in cases involving juveniles and people suffering from mental illnesses, and lawmakers in Maine, Colorado, California and Washington, among others, are contemplating similar reforms.

Maryland has made some progress in recent years to monitor prisoners in isolated confinement more carefully, especially mentally ill inmates or those who are too violent to share a cell. But roughly 8 percent of the 21,000 inmates in Maryland state prisons are in some form of segregation at any given time, a significantly higher percentage than many other states. And they can be confined there for up to a year or more if authorities deem it necessary. If state public safety director Gregg L. Hershberger thinks that's not too many, perhaps he should emulate Mr. Raemisch's example and spend a night in "Ad Seg" so he can judge for himself whether it's really something the state needs to keep doing — or just torture by another name.

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