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Stuck in the hole: Our attorneys fight against solitary confinement in prisons and jails

Excessive-bailThe ‘hole,’ ‘lockdown,’ ‘the pound,’ ‘the SHU,’ ‘admin seg,’ ‘ISO’–no matter the name, these words, in the prison context, represent modern-day torture. In prison, solitary confinement is one of the harshest punishments imposed on inmates. Usually, those in solitary spend 23 hours per day alone in their cell. Their opportunities for recreation are limited. Visitation from family and friends is not usually allowed. Many inmates in solitary confinement can’t make phone calls and aren’t allowed any reading materials. Essentially, modern solitary confinement means being trapped inside your own head, with no way to pass the time. For that reason, long periods spent in solitary confinement can cause mental health issues with long term effects. Based on those effects, the international community frowns upon the United States’ widespread use of solitary confinement as punishment in U.S. prisons. In fact, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has condemned the United States’ use of solitary confinement as a form of torture, and experts in the UN suggest that all countries should ban solitary confinement because the mental health effects are too severe to justify using isolation as a means of punishment.

“[T]he [UN] Committee [Against Torture] remains concerned about reports of extensive use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation in US prisons, jails and other detention centres for purposes of punishment, discipline and protection, as well as for health-related reasons. It also notes the lack of relevant statistical information available. Furthermore, it is concerned about the use of solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time, and its use against juveniles and individuals with mental disabilities. The full isolation for 22-23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable.”

Research has shown that long periods of isolation can affect mental health. A prominent expert in this area, Professor Stuart Grassain, explains that “incarceration in solitary caused either severe exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting illness, or the appearance of an acute mental illness in individuals who had previously been free of any such illness.” He continues, noting the long term effects of solitary confinement that last for years after the period of isolation; these symptoms can include “persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress (such as flashbacks, chronic hypervigilance, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness), but also lasting personality changes—especially including a continuing pattern of intolerance of social interaction, leaving the individual socially impoverished and withdrawn, subtly angry and fearful when forced into social interaction.” Thus, periods in solitary confinement can create new symptoms of mental illnesses, even if the prisoner has never had any mental health issues. If the prisoner has previously suffered from a mental illness, solitary confinement will only make that mental illness worse. That is especially dangerous because prisoners are meant to rehabilitate, given the fact that most incarcerated human beings return to society once their sentence is finished. If prison is creating new mental illnesses and making those that already exist worse, how are inmates supposed to–effectively–reintegrate into society? The problem in our country is that, even though long stints in solitary can cause these types of mental health symptoms in prisoners with lasting effects, solitary confinement is not considered as cruel and unusual punishment–so it is not outright prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits excessive bail and fines and protects against the use of cruel and unusual punishments. What “cruel and unusual punishment” actually means though can sometimes be vague. Currently, solitary confinement is not explicitly considered “cruel and unusual.” The Supreme Court has held, however, that solitary confinement should only be reserved for the most heinous of crimes because it is a punishment marked with “disgrace.” In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890). Other courts have held that long periods of time in isolation can be cruel and unusual punishment, especially when the inmate is held there indefinitely, with no determined end date. Sheley v. Dugger, 833 F.2d 1420, 1427 (11th Cir. 1987) (holding that twelve years in solitary confinement was severe enough to be cruel and unusual punishment.)

Knowing the negative effects that long periods of solitary confinement can cause, our attorneys at Nexus Derechos Humanos have filed a lawsuit against the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, Gregory Dozier, for the release of Miguel Jackson from an indefinite stay in solitary confinement that has lasted the past seven years. Not only has Mr. Jackson spent the last seven years in isolation, he was sent to solitary confinement based on phony charges that were never prosecuted. Essentially, he was never supposed to be there in the first place, and now he has been in solitary confinement for seven years. Based on the international community’s distaste for solitary confinement, and research that shows how badly solitary confinement can affect mental health, our civil litigators at Nexus Derechos Humanos believe that Mr. Jackson’s stay in solitary confinement should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. We have filed a motion for preliminary injunction, which asks the court to remove Mr. Jackson from solitary confinement, placing him back in general population, so that Mr. Jackson can once again be in the company of other people, have visitation and phone calls with his family, and thus continue a path toward true rehabilitation.

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