Long solitary is no solution

Inmates watch from inside their cells in a special housing unit for mentally ill inmates at Lieber Correctional Institution in this file photo. (Paul Zoeller/File)

A recent investigative report on the South Carolina Department of Corrections by the Electronic Frontier Foundation offered an alarming piece of data. More than 300 inmates received disciplinary detention in solitary confinement for posting on Facebook since that activity was banned in 2012. Under the regulations in place at the time, some of those prisoners would be locked up alone for decades.

The story drew national attention, and rightfully so.

While using Facebook in prison — particularly on contraband cell phones — is a serious concern, even Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling agrees that such a punishment would be excessive and counterproductive. That’s why he led more than a year of research and discussion to change the state’s solitary detention policy.

As of this month, inmates can only receive a maximum of 60 days in solitary confinement for the most serious disciplinary infractions. Less serious infractions have even lower maximums. And inmates on disciplinary detention can have their terms in solitary shortened for good behavior.

“It never made sense to me that once you were sentenced to something, you could not earn it back,” said Mr. Stirling of the new rules, which also affect less serious punishments like visitation and canteen privileges. “Why would you behave if you knew you couldn’t talk to your family for years on end?”

The shift on disciplinary policy is tied in part to a South Carolina Supreme Court case over treatment of mentally ill prisoners in the state. A verdict handed down early last year ordered Corrections to make changes, including reducing the dependence on solitary confinement as a way to manage inmates with severe psychological issues.

But beyond the legal imperative, ending excessive use of solitary confinement makes sense for prison safety and efficacy.

Solitary lockup fell out of acceptable practice in most U.S. prisons by the turn of the last century. Even at that time, experts realized that locking inmates in windowless cells with no human contact for days, weeks or even months on end served little rehabilitative purpose and could induce or exacerbate mental illness.

Solitary confinement only returned to widespread use in the late 1970s and ’80s as the prison population soared and officials struggled to maintain safety and order in overcrowded facilities. But numerous academic studies have reaffirmed that increasing reliance on solitary lockup had a largely negative effect on prison safety and inmate health.

According to recent congressional testimony, prisoners who spend long periods of time in solitary lockup can suffer a variety of psychological effects including “increased negative attitudes and affect, irritability, anger, aggression and even rage” among other issues.

More disturbingly, they also frequently report “severe and even paralyzing discomfort around other people, engage in self-imposed forms of social withdrawal and suffer from extreme paranoia.”

Inmates who experience such intense reactions to protracted solitary lockup are unlikely to successfully readjust to life among the general prison population, much less society at large.

And most prisoners — approximately 95 percent in South Carolina — will not die behind bars. As such, a portion of their time as inmates must be spent preparing them for life outside.

Far from aiding in rehabilitation, solitary confinement often worsens existing anti-social tendencies and can lead to new problems for many inmates.

Continuing to reduce the use of solitary confinement in South Carolina prisons marks a positive shift for inmates and the larger society they will one day rejoin.