Criminal Justice

Some Prisons Rely Less on Solitary Confinement; the Benefits Aren't Just Economic

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More inmates are held in solitary confinement in the United States than any other nation, but in some states, attitudes toward the practice are changing.

At least 25,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement, the lingering effects of a get-tough approach that began 30 years ago, the New York Times reports. But some states are reducing the number of prisoners in solitary, including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington state.

In the latest development, California officials on Friday announced plans to change policies that could cut the number of inmates sent to the state’s super-maximum-security units.

“Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has devastating psychological effects,” the Times says, “but a central driver in the recent shift is economics. 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 many recession-plagued states can ill afford.”

While states see economic benefits from change, many prisoners are seeing psychological benefits. The story cites Mississippi as an example. Inmates at the state’s super-maximum-security prison were at one time kept in solitary 23 hours a day. In 2007, violence broke out, resulting in two murders, a stabbing and a suicide. When prison officials allowed exercise and group interaction, inmates behaved better, more left solitary, and violence went down.

Mississippi corrections commissioner Christopher Epps said the experience changed his views. The lesson he learned: “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.”

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