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On October 16, students from the Harvard Undergraduate Organization for Prison Education and Reform held a vigil in the Science Center Plaza to protest juvenile solitary confinement in the United States. In one-hour shifts, 23 students stood for one hour each in a seven foot by nine-foot rectangle marked on the pavement with blue tape, holding a sign that read “How should we change the prison system?”
According to HOPE’s website, the tape was placed so to that the space “inside” and “outside” the box is continuous, in order to prod passersby to “consider the space in relation to their own lives.” The protest’s goal was to call attention to the approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. According to the advocacy group Solitary Watch, at least 80,000 of these people are held in solitary confinement, many of under the age of 18.
Solitary confinement is a barbaric practice, unacceptable as a routine punishment. Medical experts like Harvard Medical School professor Atul Gawande have labeled solitary confinement psychological torture, and studies have only begun to document that dramatic and heartbreaking damage that it does. Suicidal thoughts and self-harm are commonplace. After living through extended periods of solitary confinement, reintegration to the outside world can become an emotional impossibility.
Due to the devastating psychological and health effects brought about by even short periods “in the hole,” juvenile solitary confinement is especially barbaric. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch estimate that adult prisons and jails hold around 95,000 additional juveniles, who face the same threat of solitary as older inmates. Many who are sent to solitary have not even violated any rules; they are there “for their own protection,” often because they are homosexual or transgender, or have been raped.
In addition to human costs, solitary confinement carries huge economic costs. Each prisoner in solitary confinement costs the state approximately $75,000 per year, in contrast to $25,000 for other prisoners.
Solitary confinement also raises constitutional issues. We agree with the New York Times that solitary confinement is a violation of the eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments, and we would welcome a Supreme Court challenge. Justice Anthony Kennedy agrees. “The process,” he has said, “literally drives men mad.”
Aside from being unconstitutional and inhumane, solitary confinement is unnecessary. While prisons must make special accommodations for prisoners who pose extreme danger to their fellow inmates, long-term sensory deprivation and psychological punishment is not the only alternative.
What can America do? Summarily ending solitary confinement for juveniles would be a good first step. In the longer term, policymakers must take action to ensure that corrections officers employ this grave punishment as a last resort, not as an everyday practice or a constant threat. A corrections system based on rehabilitation rather than retribution will be cheaper and more humane for all concerned.
Of course, the failures of the criminal justice system begin long before anyone enters prison. From arrest to trial to sentencing and beyond, citizens must receive due process and equal protection under the law, regardless of their race and origin. Mandatory minimum sentencing, private prisons, and unaccountable corrections officers’ unions have brought an environment where prisons are dangerous and overcrowded, a situation which requires deep systemic reforms to ameliorate. And America as a society must work towards developing alternatives to prison—policies that keep our fellow citizens free to live their lives as long as they pose no danger to others. How should we change the prison system? Our answer is: dramatically, and soon.
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