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Mary's blog

The “baddest of the bad! The worst of the worst!” -- Is solitary confinement the answer?”

No! In the first place, although we’re always told that isolation cells inside correctional facilities are for the most violent people, this isn’t quite true, as I discovered while working in the 500-cell Rikers Island Segregation Unit. Behind those cell doors, I was shocked to discover that about three quarters of the occupants of those cells were in for non-violent infractions – walking out of a housing unit while wearing a hat, for example. The Correctional Association of NY estimates that four out of five prisoners held in isolation in NY State prisons are there for non-violent infractions. At a time when the United Nations has declared that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days constitutes torture, using solitary to address minor rule infractions is an atrocity!

But what about that smaller percentage who are truly violent? Although solitary might seem like the only answer, growing research shows that rather than curbing violence, solitary increases it. This means when someone comes out of “the box,” he will likely be even more violent than before. So what is the answer? A novel experiment by two psychiatrists, Dr. Bandy Lee and Dr. James Gilligan, points to other possibilities. It is their contention that violence often comes about as a result of under-socialization - (which makes sense when you think about these terrible mass shootings across the country, and we invariably learn that the shooter was a loner). With this socialization idea in mind, Gilligan and Lee took the most violent people out of solitary confinement at a San Francisco area prison, and housed them all in a dorm, where they were inundated with intensive individual and group therapy. Contrary to warnings from correctional staff that they would be killed, the doctors were unharmed, and the prisoners soaked it up. The result? Over the next twelve months, violence among this most dangerous subset dropped to zero! This is very telling. We are social creatures. Our psyches need socialization in the way our bodies need water. To purposefully deprive someone of something so essential by placing them in solitary –often for years on end -- isn’t only cruel, but exacerbates existing poor social skills, resulting in further violence. Is this really the direction we want to be taking? If nothing else, think about what this means for all of us when someone held in solitary is released from prison – sometimes directly from their isolation cell into the public square. We know there are better ways, and it’s time we start implementing them.

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