Deja vu all over again on prolonged prison isolation

In the 1820s, the American penal system sought to end mutilating, amputating and putting convicts to death by housing them alone in isolation cells. The theory: that introspection would lead them to repent.

The morally progressive social experiment didn’t work.

Marinating in longterm solitude led less to repentance than madness. After touring an American prison in the 1840s, Charles Dickens described prolonged isolation as a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” “There is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom,” he wrote.

The dangers of solitary confinement were underscored nationally by the case of James Medley, a Colorado man who had been sentenced to death for killing his wife and housed in a solitary unit. The U.S. Supreme Court freed Medley in 1890, recognizing the psychological harm living without human contact had caused him.

“This matter of solitary confinement is not … a mere unimportant regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner,” the court ruled. “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

Most U.S. prisons stopped using solitary confinement in the mid- to late-1800s on grounds that it was torture. The policy was presumed to have gone the way of beheadings.

But prisons instituted the practice again a century later when the Reagan-era “get tough on crime” ethos led to the construction of several “supermax” prisons.

Colorado has its own supermax — Colorado State Penitentiary — where inmates are held for years in cells not much larger than king-sized mattresses, without meaningful human interaction, or even going outside. The federal government’s tightest security supermax, known as “ADX,” is just down the road in Florence, Colo. ADX houses inmates justice department officials describe as “the worst of the worst,” including drug kingpins, terrorists and serial killers. It also houses non-violent mentally ill inmates who, because they cut off their own body parts or smear their feces on walls, are deemed unfit for general population prisons.

The federal Bureau of Prisons and Colorado’s Department of Corrections long have defended themselves in cases asserting their use of solitary confinement amounts to torture. ADX is the subject of a civil rights lawsuit in Colorado’s U.S. District Court advocating for mental health treatment. The suit has prompted some reforms in the BOP. At the state level, legally besieged corrections officials are working to reduce the numbers of prisoners housed year after year in solitude. They shut down a second state supermax less than two years after it opened.

Just as it did 150 years ago, momentum is building against longterm isolation. The 8th Amendment bases determinations on whether a punishment is cruel and unusual on what it calls calls the “evolving standards of human decency.”

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy gave voice to those standards this week. It was deja vu all over again in the discussion of what forms of punishment we, as a nation, consider decent.

“This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working — and it’s not humane,” Kennedy testified Monday before the House Appropriations Committee, which is considering a 2016 budget that includes funding for isolation cells. “Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.”