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Solitary confinement is an incubator of violence

If you could design an “incubator of violence,” what would it look like? A lot like solitary confinement in the New Hampshire state prison for men.

Prisoners in the solitary confinement units get only one to two hours a day to take guarded showers, use a phone and exercise in a tiny yard. They spend the other 22 to 23 hours segregated in 6-by-12-foot cells with narrow windows.

Numerous studies show what happens to people after more than a few days confined like this.

They suffer from disorientation, hallucinations, rage, distortion of time and perception, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, paranoia and an increased risk of suicide. Many display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. If a prisoner has been confined in solitary for a lengthy period, studies show that his mental health is likely to be seriously compromised even if there was no indication of mental health problems prior to his incarceration.

Even if an inmate’s risk assessment prior to solitary confinement indicates that he would not pose a public safety risk, he is more likely to do so afterward.

More generally, there is no preparation for life on the outside, and the punishment is far more severe than the crime.

Why? – Because solitary is not just used to punish the “worst of the worst” offenders. It is also employed to punish inmates for minor, nonviolent infractions of prison rules, such as use of nutritional supplements or self-medicating by mental health patients (leading to “dirty urine” charges).

Without legislative authorization and sometimes without following due process, New Hampshire prison officials feel free to arbitrarily place mentally ill and nonviolent offenders in solitary confinement for excessively lengthy terms – as much as six to 12 months.

For these reasons a bill – HB 480 – has been introduced to limit its use.

The proposed limits on segregation would help keep inmates subject to solitary from becoming deeply disturbed predators.

After all, they will be leaving prison some day.

Among other states, both New York and Mississippi have reformed their handling of solitary confinement to limit terms and emphasize treatment over confinement.

In this area, Mississippi is more humane than New Hampshire.

There are also cost savings to be achieved. Solitary incarceration is more expensive per inmate.

The bill will be discussed tomorrow at 2 p.m. at a hearing of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building. All those concerned about the issue should attend the hearing to either speak for or against HB 480, or to register their support or opposition.

(Peter Bearse of Danville is a member of the board of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.)

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