24 October 2014. PenzaNews. The United States authorities must stop violating the rights of thousands by subjecting them to long-term isolation, said Amnesty International human rights organization in the article “Entombed: Life in the USA’s cruel isolation chambers.”
According to the publication, a typical isolation cell is a very confined, cold and stuffy room with thick concrete walls and no windows, where an inmate spends up to 24 hours a day for many years. Out-of-cell exercises of 30-90 minutes a day are usually limited to walks in a very confined prison hall with concrete walls and a wire-mesh ceiling, with no possibility to visit a prison library or self-educate. Contacts with other people are practically non-existent.
According to the human rights activists, these conditions cause severe physical and mental harm to thousands of inmates: many suffer from depression, insomnia and weight loss, as well as paranoia and psychosis. African American inmates frequently suffer severe loss of skin pigmentation due to lack of sunlight.
The conditions of solitary confinement are so severe that prisoners frequently resort to harming themselves or committing suicide. More than half of successful suicides in US prisons take place in isolation confinement system.
At the same time, according to the information by Amnesty International, the administrations of high-security penitentiary facilities remain completely indifferent and dispassionate to the issue of reintroducing the inmates into their normal lives: they receive no rehabilitation programs before or after release, which only exacerbates their condition and makes them resort to committing more crimes.
While the prison administrations state that isolation is used only against the most aggressive criminals, in reality any inmate may be placed into solitary confinement even for a minimal infraction, such as disobeying a prison guard or being suspected to belong to a gang.
According to the human rights activists, the penitentiary authorities try to hide the reality from the public by many means: for example, isolation chambers are sometimes called “safe housing units” or “restricted housing” by prison officials. However, behind this terminology is a system deliberately designed to dehumanize the inmates that neither receives any external oversight nor confirms to international law.
“Crime is a real issue in the USA and the authorities have the responsibility to address it. However, entombing people in these cruel conditions is clearly not the answer,” said Tessa Murphy, the Campaigner on the USA for Amnesty International.
As the article notes, this experience greatly alters the fate and the health condition of those who eventually return to the normal life. As an example of such survivor, Amnesty International tells about the story of a former prisoner named Steven, who spent four years in the notorious Pelican Bay prison for getting into a fight with another inmate and spitting at a prison guard.
Steven, who was 25 at the day when his sentence came into force, spent almost 24 hours a day in a 2x3 meter cell with no windows, ate at the concrete table, slept on a thin mattress and washed in the shower installed in his cell. Apart from that, he could spend 90 minutes a day in the prison yard eight steps wide under heavy surveillance. The inmates were strictly forbidden to speak with the guards.
The isolation quickly affected his health: he was constantly shivering from cold and always hungry, his eyesight greatly worsened, and year-long solitude took a great tool on the mental health of a prisoner who had nobody to speak to.
Four years later, Steven was outside of the prison with only $200 in his pockets. In addition, as the human rights activists note, he had no possibility to enroll into a rehabilitation program or gain any relevant job skills prior to his release. Not being able to cope with the difficult situation by himself and find his place in the society after a lengthy period of isolation, Steven turned to drugs. However, later on he managed to be cured of the lethal addiction, and now lives a normal life with his wife and his daughter and studies in a prestige university: but the former inmate nevertheless suffers from paranoia, bouts of fear and communication difficulties.
Amnesty International representatives stress the fact the situation has changed over the last few years thanks to pressure from human rights activists and lawmakers resulting in prison system reforms in several states. However, the second opening of the Thomson maximum-security prison in Illinois, that had previously closed down in 2010 to be bought over by the government two years later, signifies that the situation has not yet changed for the better.
The human rights activists recall how the US President Barack Obama in his address to the UN in September 2014 stated that the US welcomes international scrutiny of the country’s penitentiary system.
According to Tessa Murphy, the current situation makes it vital for the state authorities to keep the promise and allow international experts, including those from the UN, to inspect their high-security correctional facilities, and undertake several federal-level penitentiary reforms.
“Solitary confinement in the USA must be reserved only for the most exceptional cases, as a last resort, and for the shortest possible period of time,” thinks Amnesty International’s Campaigner for the USA.