California's Unconscionable System of Solitary Confinement

There is a longstanding and serious debate over whether solitary confinement is, in and of itself, torture. Countless prisoners who've experienced it have said that isolation is worse than any form of physical torture. A new Amnesty report on isolation in California's prisons should make any rational person queasy about what we're doing to society's most forgotten people.

Here are just a few facts from Amnesty's report:

  • In California, "more than 500 prisoners have spent ten or more years in isolation, more than 200 had spent over 15 years and 78 in excess of 20 years." Isolation means 22.5 hours per day alone in a windowless 7x12 foot cell, and 90 minutes of exercise in a concrete yard, alone, and no interaction with others, ever.
  • "While isolated prisoners make up about 2% of the total inmate population, they accounted for 42% of the suicides from 2006 to 2010."
  • Two thirds of California prisoners being held in isolation are there not because the committed specific disciplinary offenses, but because they have been "validated" by prison officials as gang members. Their isolations go on indefinitely. The average stay in isolation is nearly seven years.
  • It costs significantly more to house prisoners in isolation than in general population.
  • California prisoners in isolation cells are only allowed phone calls "in an emergency, such as the death of a close relative."
This system is insane, inhuman, and lacks proportionality to the crimes in question. It is a stain on our conscience as a nation. Anyone who thinks this system is okay should lock themselves in their bathroom for the next seven years.

[The full Amnesty report. Photo: AP]