Solitary confinement is one of the cruelest fates that can befall a prisoner — so cruel, in fact, that the Supreme Court nearly declared it unconstitutional in 1890. Unfortunately, this particular punishment has remained a bitter reality of the U.S. correctional justice system in the century that’s followed, eliciting continual outrage from advocacy groups and inmates alike.

Locked in concrete cells without sunlight or human contact for up to 23 hours per day, inmates become prisoners of their own minds, trapped in their own anxieties, suspicions and fears. Although most of these prisoners will be re-introduced to the general population, it’s not surprising that nearly half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement. It’s a tactic that breaks people, often beyond repair.

Little wonder, then, that some 30,000 prisoners in California state prisons went on a hunger strike this summer to protest the use of solitary confinement. Protest organizers called off the strike after California lawmakers promised to hold hearings on the state’s so-called supermax prisons and their use of solitary confinement. In Virginia, however, a hunger strike wasn’t necessary to highlight the cruelty of this punishment. In the past two years, the state’s Corrections Department has taken the initiative to institute a program at the Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons that provides inmates in “administrative segregation” the opportunity to work their way out of crippling isolation.

Known as “step-down,” the program offers classes to inmates officials have identified as having potential for successful development. In 2011, Virginia had 468 prisoners locked away in solitary confinement at those two prisons. As of last month, only 179 remained.

Those statistics are a testament to the viability of a solution to the many problems of solitary confinement

Besides, the long-term costs of allowing the status quo to remain unchallenged are simply too high.


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