Is America's New Solution To Prison Overcrowding Inhumane?
Among the many values we hold dear in this country, the right to life and justice under the law for all remains the bedrock of American democracy. Unless, of course, you’re sent to prison. While the number of federal inmates in the United States has decreased slightly, the total number of prisoners in local, state, and federal prisons still tops out at around 2.2 million. That’s a major problem, especially when the solution to this epidemic of overcrowding increasingly turns to solitary confinement. The practice of putting prisoners into windowless, cramped cells with almost no contact with the outside world has already been deemed a form of torture by the United Nations. It’s prompted President Obama to ban solitary confinement for juveniles and for those in jail for low-level infractions. Yet solitary confinement has not ended, but rather become the source of a disturbing new practice that has become the norm in prisons across the country.
Inmates are being thrown into solitary confinement cells smaller than parking space—with a cellmate. The strategy is called “doubling” or “double celling,” and it’s the latest attempt by prisons to combat overcrowding without tackling the real problem of why so many people are being locked up in the first place (what’s good War on Drugs?). The practice was exposed as part of a joint investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project, a news organization specializing in criminal justice, and their findings are a sobering look at what is happening behind bars. Put into boxes that are 10’8” by 4’8”, the prisoners often develop bedsores from the lack of moment and have to take turns standing up in best case scenarios. Worst case? They attack and either injure or kill each other.
“It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity,” Obama said about solitary confinement in January. Locking up prisoners in these narrow cells is not only an affront to the safety and well being of the general public, but also to the people who have been locked up. Isolation has pushed people to insanity and left them with devastating mental health issues that lead to an increased risk of suicide. Yet despite all of these studies and the dangers of doubling, at least 18 state prison systems do it in a portion of their restrictive housing units, and over 80% of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary are doubled up with another prisoner. If you have a hard enough time living with a roommate, imagine spending 23 hours a day with someone you don’t know while locked in a room smaller than the parking spot. “”The frustration and anger that’s generated by being in isolation is intensified by having to navigate around another person’s habits, trials and tribulations,” psychologist Craig Haney explained. Prisoners have no voice in the fight to change these practices.
The overwhelming pressure that these inmates feel when forced to room with another person is bad enough, but it’s made even more unbearable given the fact that they’re more likely to develop a mental health issue while it’s happening. Every year, two million men and women with mental illnesses are jailed, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of women and half of men in prison. If a prison has to double up solitary confinement cells as a solution to overcrowding, you can bet that they don’t have the resources in place to treat mentally ill prisoners, or to even diagnose mental illness.
When inmates were placed together in solitary confinement in the past, little thought was usually given to what their history was in terms of both the crime and their behavior in the prison. This all changed when a rash of murders happened in the doubled up cells of two Illinois prisons. “They started requiring officers to consider inmates’ crimes, size, gang affiliations and behavior when assigning cellmates,” the NPR report found. “The ultimate decision as to whether to place two prisoners together, however, remained at the discretion of the staff.”
As prisons continue to convict people for low-level offenses and fail to secure the necessary mental health funding, there’s no way of knowing when, or if, the practice of doubling will end. Solitary confinement is torturous, and sticking two inmates into a cell so small that they have to take turns standing is beyond inhumane. It’s an affront to the livelihood of the prisoners. Being forced into these boxes isn’t just an affront to justice, it’s a complete disregard for American values.
Stay tuned to Milk for more overcrowded prison news.
Images via NPR, The Marshall Project, Slate, and Getty.