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Cruel and unusual punishment

Rights groups condemn the practice of holding prisoners in solitary confinement as 'torture by another name.'

Last week President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Thursday, Mr. Obama traveled to the medium-security El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City to call for major reforms to the nation's criminal justice system, including a ban on isolating inmates in solitary confinement for months or years on end. We share that goal and hope the president's remarks will inspire Maryland lawmakers to redouble their efforts to abolish this cruel form of punishment in the state's prisons when the General Assembly meets in Annapolis next year.

State correctional officials have long denied that Maryland holds inmates in solitary confinement. But many of the punitive methods they do employ — under such benign-sounding names as "administrative segregation," "disciplinary segregation" and "protective custody" — amount to the same thing. All aim to cut off prisoners from human contact for protracted periods of time, a practice the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned as "torture by another name."

Yet the U.S. leads the world in the number of prisoners it subjects to such treatment, despite the fact that its costs taxpayers dearly, doesn't make prisons safer for inmates or staff and actually increases the likelihood that inmates will re-offend upon their release. In Maryland, the best data available suggest that more than 8 percent of the 22,000 inmates in the state's prisons are subject to some form of isolated confinement on any given day, a significantly higher percentage than many other states, including Virginia, which incarcerates only about 5 percent of its prisoners in so-called segregation units.

A study by the American Psychiatric Association found that prisoners held under such abusive conditions for prolonged periods suffer the same kind of mental distress as victims of traumatic brain injury — sensory deprivation, anxiety, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and a losing battle to maintain contact with reality. Even relatively healthy inmates can be mentally devastated by the experience, while inmates who already have a mental illness are likely to get even worse in solitary.

President Obama alluded to the harmful consequences of isolation last week when noted that confining prisoners "in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at time is not going to make us safer." Instead, he insisted, "our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more-hardened criminals." And like the harsh, mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders that the president also criticized, the practice of locking up people in solitary for long periods of time disproportionately affects members of poor and minority communities.

Civil liberties and human rights advocates say the biggest obstacle to ending solitary confinement in Maryland's prisons is the lack of transparency that shields the extent of the problem from public view. The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which overseas prisons in Maryland, does not keep detailed records on how many inmates are held in isolation units for what reasons, how long they stay there or how many commit new crimes when they get out. This means there's no way for the public to know whether the regulations governing the treatment of inmates are being followed or whether they protect prisoners from the worst abuses.

In the last two sessions of the General Assembly, bills that would have mandated prison officials provide such information died in committee before reaching the House or Senate floor. But with many Republicans as well as Democrats now agreeing that serious reform is needed in the federal and state criminal justice systems, the issue has gained a new urgency that lawmakers in Annapolis will be hard put to ignore.

There may always be some prisoners who are so dangerous or difficult to control that they can't be safely confined with other inmates. But the continued use of solitary confinement as a routine disciplinary measure is both morally indefensible and counterproductive. It's time that Maryland joined the growing number of other states — including Maine, Colorado, California and Washington — that are committed to ending it.

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