Solitary Confinement: Cruel & Unusual, or Necessary Penal Option? Bob Donley Reports

LBN’s Bob Donley points out a room six feet by ten feet is a small room. Sixty square feet. But it’s a room where some people live twenty-three hours out of every day. Inmates in solitary confinement live in rooms like that, in some cases for as much as twenty years. An inmate in solitary confinement eats, sleeps, uses the bathroom, exercises or reads within that sixty square feet. “Welcome to life in solitary prison.”

Donley says that there are about 2.2 million people in prisons in the U.S., and of that group, 75,000—about 35—are in solitary confinement. About 63,000 of those are in state prisons; the remaining 12,000 are in federal facilities. Attention has recently been drawn to the situation by President Obama. He made the first-ever visit by a president to a prison, and he has spoken out against the harshness of solitary confinement.

Critics of solitary confinement point out the long list of problems it can cause, including depression, mental illness, anxiety, and anger. Prisoners who are released after solitary may never recover. On the other hand, Donley says, prison administrators claim that they need the threat of solitary confinement in order to do their jobs. Guards need the threat of solitary in order to maintain control over a hostile prison populace.

Prison wardens also say that some inmates must be separated from the general population—people like child molesters, rapists, and ex-gang members. These are people who must be placed in solitary confinement for their own protection. Donley reports that President Obama has ordered a Department of Justice review of solitary confinement. Of course, the president has power only over the federal prison system. And fifteen governors, mostly Democrats, are looking at ways to reduce the solitary confinement population. There is some suggestion that the Supreme Court may consider whether solitary confinement violates the Constitution.

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