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March 01, 2014

ABA cites growing concerns about solitary confinement

The ABA expressed concerns to a Senate subcommittee last month about the negative effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and emphasized that the impact on juveniles is especially pronounced.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises that even short periods of isolation too often have serious long-term mental health impact on juveniles, a vulnerable age group, and the ABA maintains that segregation should be imposed in the most limited manner possible.

The ABA statement on solitary confinement, submitted by ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman for a Feb. 24 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, emphasizes the immense costs to the public, the prisoners, and the communities to which the vast majority of once-isolated prisoners will return. The hearing was scheduled a year and a half after the panel held its first hearing on the issue in 2012, and Susman urged the members to continue to investigate how long-term solitary confinement may be restricted in ways that promote the safe, efficient and humane operation of prisons.

He pointed out that, since the first hearing, the Bureau of Prisons has been conducting a first-ever independent assessment of federal prisons’ solitary confinement policies. The assessment, overseen by the National Institute of Corrections, is identifying the best practices in both the federal and state systems, he said.

Susman said the testimony of witnesses who had been subjected to solitary confinement for extended periods of time is supported by various studies suggesting that isolation decreases brain activity and can provoke serious psychiatric harms, including severe depression, hallucination, withdrawal, panic attacks and paranoia. He added that some data suggest that prisoners who have spent long periods in isolation are more likely to reoffend, and many studies report that these prisoners have a more difficult time creating lasting social bonds that are necessary to reintegration into their communities.

The state explained that the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice on the Treatment of Prisoners, updated in 2010, contain specific guidance on the use of prolonged isolation and apply to all prisoners in adult correctional facilities, including jails. The core ideal of the standards is that “segregated housing should be for the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions practicable and consistent with the rationale for placement and with the progress achieved by the prisoner.”

 “In short,” Susman said, “while it may necessary physically to separate prisoners who pose a threat to others, that separation does not necessitate the social and sensory isolation that has become routine.”

During the hearing, Mark Levin, director of the Center for Effective justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, described ways their states and other states are reducing reliance on solitary confinement without sacrificing the safety of prison staff, other prisoners or the public.

Subcommittee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called for an end to the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and individuals with serous and persistent mental illness, except in exceptional circumstances.

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