New report reveals troubling reality of Georgia’s solitary confinement
Approximately 95 percent of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released from prison. This reality underscores the importance that they must receive the treatment that they need to safely re-integrate into society. Unfortunately, many who are imprisoned face and attempt to overcome stark conditions, including those associated with solitary confinement, that make rehabilitation much more challenging.
Conditions within one of Georgia’s solitary confinement units highlights the need for reform. According to documents recently filed in federal court, the isolation unit “puts [inmates] at significant risk of very serious psychological harm.” The report concluded that the Georgia Department of Corrections’ (DOC) policies “severely and completely depriv[e] prisoners of meaningful social contact and positive environmental stimulation.”
Craig Haney, a noted psychology professor, toured one of Georgia’s solitary confinement units – the Special Management Unit (SMU). He discovered inmates physically harming themselves, consuming feces and urine, and attempting suicide. The photos accompanying his report paint a dismal picture, including blacked out cell windows, filthy living spaces, and blood-soaked floors. Between his shocking findings and numerous studies on prison isolation’s effects and efficacy, it’s clear that Georgia needs to revisit its SMU policies.
These “prisons within prisons,” isolate individuals in separate cells as either punishment or in response to purported safety concerns. According to DOC spokeswoman Patricia Sweatman, there are 119 people currently housed in the SMU, but individuals can be admitted to the unit under broad, nebulous, and dubious justifications. If an inmate is considered a “person of notoriety” or has “assaultive histories,” then he or she can wind up in the SMU for years. These vague qualifications cover large swaths of the prison population and permit a degree of capriciousness when determining who ends up in the SMU.
Reports and DOC policies reveal the SMU inmates’ troubling realities. For the most part, they are locked in a cramped 6 by 9-foot spartan cell nearly 24-hours a day. Aside from their thrice weekly 15-minute hygiene breaks, they are permitted to leave their cell to exercise in a small metal cage for five hours a week, but this time usually occurs in two and a half hour increments.
The truth is that current isolation policies aren’t helpful. Isolation does little to increase safety inside or outside of prison walls. Instead, it could actively cause more harm than good. Fundamentally, it is not an effective corrective measure and some state prisons are taking steps to choose more beneficial correctional options over isolation.
Solitary confinement has also proven to be less than successful as a means to reduce prison violence. For example, in Mississippi’s state penitentiary, mentally ill prisoners were removed from solitary and given treatment. Studies consequently found that prison-wide violence decreased.
By stuffing prisoners in solitary confinement, detention facilities are creating mental distress, which will ultimately lead to less safe communities and increased recidivism rates. In isolation people can become anxious, angry, as well as mentally and emotionally unstable. Considering that around 56 percent of inmates already have mental health problems, this kind of harmful environment can exacerbate their lingering issues and cause irreparable damage. If these issues aren’t addressed, then they can become manifest when the individual is released from prison. Once free, some recommit crimes while suffering from mental illness and return to prison – as the cycle begins anew.
Rather than using isolation as a quick fix, prisons could simply employ other mechanisms to provide heightened safety for prisoners who might be in danger. The last 20 years of academic research has demonstrated that the amount of violence in a prison is a function of its culture and the effectiveness of its management. A good example of this is Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. In response to an outbreak of violence among residents, prison officials eased restrictions, allowing most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. The prison built a basketball court and a group dining area and began rehabilitation programs.
As a result, violence decreased, and the number of prisoners in isolation dropped from more than 1,000 to about 300. In fact, so many were moved out of isolation and into the general population that an entire unit of the penitentiary was closed, saving the state more than $5 million annually.
Georgia has been one of the nation’s leaders on criminal justice reform. Under Governor Deal, the Peach State has made great strides to implement a system that inflicts less harm, reduces recidivism rates, and provides cost-savings. However, solitary confinement specifically hasn’t received the same level of attention. As Georgia prepares to inaugurate a new governor in the coming year, he or she would be wise to consider Mississippi’s example and address solitary confinement’s many issues.