Sunday, March 25, 2012

Should CA Learn from Mississippi and Rethink Solitary Confinement?

Mississippi State Penitentiary isolation cell.
Credit Josh Anderson for the New York Times.
A recent New York Times story, titled Rethinking Solitary Confinement, tells of Mississippi's surprising reaction to violent incidents in the solitary confinement unit:

They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.

In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000. So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.

The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.

The article goes in depth into the creation of solitary regimes, beginning with the days of Eastern State Penitentiary (an institution we visited and reviewed a while ago) and chronicling the correctional authorities' constant concern about gang warfare. And, as always these days, there's a financial angle.

Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as conventional prisons are. They are an expense that manyrecession-plagued states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.

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