President Obama should visit solitary confinement cell to see true suffering (COMMENTARY)

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The Rev. Laura Markle Downton describes solitary confinement to conference participants, on April 19, 2015, during Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. Photo by Erin Schaff, courtesy of Perisphere Media - www.PerisphereMedia.com

The Rev. Laura Markle Downton describes solitary confinement to conference participants, on April 19, 2015, during Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. Photo by Erin Schaff, courtesy of Perisphere Media - www.PerisphereMedia.com

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(RNS) Thursday's prison visit is an opportunity for President Obama to expand and grow the legacy he hopes to leave as a criminal-justice reformer.

  • Jack

    If a solitary cell looks like that picture above, it is truly horrible and has no place in our society.

    But if you want to build support among the American people for criminal justice reform, including banning or restricting the use of solitary, don’t even think of making it into a racial issue. People are sick of race-base politics. You will turn off millions of otherwise sympathetic people if you pull out the race card.

    Keep it as a human rights issue that transcends color.

  • bqrq

    I have served as a volunteer mentor in prisons and over the years I have mentored inmates had in five state prisons, a county jail and two juvenile facilities. This article reflects a profound misunderstanding and general ignorance of the normal procedures and security measures that are necessary in any prison. Solitary confinement is a safe and appropriate method for handling violent inmates, disciplinary issues, and also to protect inmates that are seriously threatened by other inmates. Solitary confinement is not torture, especially when compared to other common threats that prisoner face such as beatings, intimidation, extortion, rape, humiliation, infectious diseases, loneliness, mental cruelty and intense hatred.

    Rev. Ron Stief should volunteer and serve time in prisons before proclaiming that prisons routinely torture inmates.

  • Dominic

    I don’t think the treatment of criminals in prison is a high priority of the American public.
    We see that they have TVs, weight rooms, are free to form gangs, have access to drugs, booze, conjugal visits, and sometimes marry in prison. The guards are generally corrupt and the death penalty being halted, we will py for their lifestyles until they die……medical care is free, too!
    Solitary confinement is ideologically “bad”, but its not as though we are subjecting Mother Theresa to it.

  • bqrq

    Dominic,
    Not all inmates are allowed TV, weight rooms and recreation. Every privilege is used as either reward or punishment. Living conditions are always brutal, even in good prisons. There is huge population of inmates who cannot exist in the free world, there is never enough room for all the criminals that need to be incarcerated, prisons are always overcrowded. Prison is a punitive hell on earth.

  • Diane Engster

    I beg to differ. I have been part of a support network for aa African-American teen-ager with autism and intellectual disability who was held in solitary confinement pre-trial for a year and then three years in prison. In addition to living in solitary he was regularly denied even the badics if life like reading materials, toilet paper, eating utensils, proper clothing and blankets and visits with his mother and other family members.

    He also was taunted and ridiculed by the guards.

    If this isn’t torture, i don’t know what you would call it. We were finally able to prevail upon the new and compassionate Governor to pardon him to go to a treatment facility.

  • As a matter of pragmatism, perhaps. However, the criminal justice system is hardly colorblind. According to the BJS, in 2013, almost 3% of black male U.S. residents of all ages were in prison, compared to 0.5% of white males. Considering too that black Americans constitute just 13% of the U.S. population while simultaneously constituting 40% of the prison population (as of 2010) – not to mention enforcement actions which overwhelmingly target minorities despite greater prevalence of some offences among white populations – you can’t just wave racism away. Everything is connected, from slavery, to the slum, to the slammer. Beware of false equivalencies.

  • Dominic

    Bqrq, I agree, but that is the way most criminals choose to act in prison. It is similar to what one can expect in Hell; hopelessness, loneliness, unbearable conditions, and endless suffering. Only good Wardens, Guards, and Humanitarians can force a new, rehabilitative program into the prison system……an that has never happened as yet.

  • Larry

    Of course they would be a lot less crowded if not for the “War on Drugs”. There is never enough room because there are too many people there who more than likely didn’t belong there in the first place.

    Mandatory sentencing and harsh penalties for non-violent drug offenders has undermined any pretension that our prisons are anything more than “finishing schools” for gangs and career criminals.

  • Jack

    JC, I have no doubt in my mind that some of it is racism. But most of the statistics you cite simply reflect the fact that the black violent crime rate is many times higher than the violent crime rate of the general population.

    Now a racist will seize upon that fact and come to racist conclusions. And a liberal will wrongly conclude that anyone who bring up that fact therefore is a racist.

    But both racists and liberals (not always mutually exclusive) are wrong on this. Yes, the violent crime rate is far higher among black people, but that is largely due to the sky-high percentage of black males growing up in fatherless homes. And that, in turn, is directly due to white liberal welfare policies that targeted black communities starting in the mid-20th century, which led the black illegitimacy rate rise from almost nothing to 1/3 by the 1960s and 70% over the past decade.

  • Jack

    That’s true but only to a certain extent. The gray area is the number of so-called nonviolent drug offenders who are there for dealing.

    I generally agree that we should find ways apart from incarceration for dealing with certain nonviolent offenders, but it’s not as simple as it appears.

    Clearly, drug use is way down from what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Obviously demand reduction played a role….drugs stopped being cool by the late 1980s and 1990s and while pot is now enjoying a resurgence, it’s nothing like the 1970s.

  • bqrq

    In my experience, most inmates are sent to prison for committing an “aggravated” offense which involves threat of bodily harm and violence. Drug offenders often carry weapons and commit crimes such as burglary and extortion which are aggravated offences. Most inmates are repeat offenders with long juvenile records, they come from poor circumstances and dysfunctional families. Approximately 95% of inmates come from homes where there is no father in the house.

  • Larry

    “Clearly, drug use is way down from what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Obviously demand reduction played a role….drugs stopped being cool by the late 1980s and 1990s and while pot is now enjoying a resurgence, it’s nothing like the 1970s.”

    That is not really true. Its that drug abuse patterns have shifted away from imported substances and towards more homegrown/made ones such as meth derivatives and prescription types. Incarceration hasn’t changed the level of abuse. Interdiction only changed the method of supply.

    Drug possession offenders still make up a ridiculously high percentage of our inmate population which is largely unnecessary

  • David F Mayer

    What do you think these guys are in Solitary Confinement for? Stealing cookies? These persons have shown by their action that they are unfit to be with other humans, even other prisoners. Solitary Confinement is what they deserve.

  • bqrq

    David,
    You are right. The author, Rev Ron Stief, ignores the good use of solitary confinement. Does he prefer that inmates be allowed to beat, brutalize and assault other inmates and guards? What about rape? Extortion? Theft? Spitting on a guard, throwing feces and infectious body fluids. This happens every day in prisons across America. Would Rev Stief prefer chaos, murder and rape to solitary confinement? What is his solution to prison disciplinary practices.