Sunday’s New York Times (3/11/12, Erica Goode) has a long article entitled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement.” More than a half-dozen states have been taking steps to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement, including Mississippi on which the story focuses. The author notes this effort represents an about-face to an approach that began 30 years ago when the “get tough on crime” movement took hold in this country. In 1994, Georgia, never one to be outdone, thought the “three strikes and you’re out” laws of neighboring states were for sissies and did them one better — strike one, strike two, you’re gone! As a result of this kind of thinking, Georgia now spends over one billion dollars a year locking people up. In a country where the incarceration rate is the highest in the world — did you know that despite the U.S. representing only 5% of the world population, we are home to 25% of the world’s inmates? — Georgia ranks fourth among the fifty states. That bears repeating. Georgia ranks fourth in our country in its rate of incarceration, and that’s in the country with the highest such rates in the world. We have locked up one in seventy Georgia adults. And according to a recent report from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform commissioned by Governor Deal (Georgia’s conservative Republican governor), the explosive growth in Georgia’s prison population can’t be explained by a rise in crime. Nor has the billion dollars we are spending made a dent in rates of recidivism. Nope, we just lock them up, provide little in the way of any services that will help them stay out of jail, and then lock them up again.
What then explains the booming growth rate? It turns out the answer is pretty simple. 60% of our state’s inmates are in jail for drug and property offenses and the proportion is growing. As a state, we’ve been very successful building new prisons and hiring more prison guards. But wait! All of a sudden a number of state legislatures, including our own, are starting to re-think this strategy.
Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections now says “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they will behave… That was the culture and I was part of it.” His views have changed 180 degrees. By 2005, 44 states had built super-max prisons, including his own, and dramatically increased the use of solitary confinement where prisoners are let out of the cells only a few hours a week, fed through slots in doors, denied access to education and work programs, and face severe restrictions on seeing any family members who wished to visit. Treated like animals seems like a reasonable description except that in today’s zoos, one could never get away with such conditions.
As the number of these facilities grew, prison systems felt the need to fill them. Today, the residents of these special cells bear little resemblance to the serial killers and terrorists we imagine filled such places. According to Mr. Epps, who also serves as the president of the American Correctional Association, we started out isolating inmates we were scared of, but ending up adding many we were simply mad at. The effect? Well, one effect is the production of mental illness. One in ten inmates in Mississippi’s infamous Unit 32 were declared seriously mentally ill. The absence of human interaction can tend to do not such good things to people’s pyschological state. But we’ve known this for a long time –centuries in fact. Another effect? That brings me to the punchline of the story. Why the change of heart now?
“it’s just too expensive to hold someone in a segregation bed” today, says Angela Brown from the Vera Institute of Justice who works with a number of states to find alternatives to segregation. Unit 32 was closed in 2010. A few guards rebelled at this action taken by Mr. Epps. Some resigned; others were fired. One resident who had been housed there for more than 20 years worked his way to greater privileges. “Was it scary? Absolutely.” Mr. Epps said. “But it worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.” A dose of greater humanitarianism and think of the money it saved.
The financial crisis Georgia is facing is giving it reason to examine who we lock up, how long we keep them in confinement, and how they are treated once there. Money can make strange bedfellows, but whatever the reasons for these new initiatives, it’s a welcome change in my book.