Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guest Commentary: On solitary confinement

A special edition of our blog with a guest writer. This is a copy of a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee by HFP friend, Joyce Gouwens, of St. Joseph:

Dear Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Graham:

I am extremely grateful that you are looking into the long-term affects of solitary confinement. I correspond regularly with 10 prisoners, two of whom are mentally ill and who are overwhelmed by the isolation of solitary confinement. My article on the subject was published by The Christian Century in its December 27, 2011 issue titled "Put Away." I served on Berrien County's Task Force on Juvenile Justice (Michigan) in 2001, and was involved in our county's study a year ago on how to head off imprisonment for the mentally ill. We were impressed by the successful pattern established by police and mental health advocates in Chicago and are working here now in trying to treat instead of imprison whenever possible.

I have volunteered for the past ten years on our county's Community Restorative Board, which gives juvenile offenders the choice of going through a restorative justice process instead of going before a judge. Mental health issues are checked out by professionals and treatment may be required. Typically 95% of the kids who complete the 4-week program of apologizing to all those affected by their crime, and making restitution financially and by community service, do not re-offend. The place to begin, then, to avoid the expense and the tragic results of long-term solitary confinement is in the local community with early intervention in cases of mental illness and dysfunctional family life.

Our nation's use of solitary confinement as punishment has been condemned by the Geneva Convention, and has been documented to trigger mental illness among prisoners when they are subjected to more than 30 days of this isolation. One mentally ill teenager I've been writing to has attempted suicide a number of times while being punished by months of isolation. The use of incentives in prisons has been found to be more effective than the use of this sort of punishment, which only decreases the prisoner's to cope in society.

One of the major financial concerns of prisons now is the extent of recidivism. The inability of those who have spent months or years in isolation to function in normal society has been a major factor in this problem. Time in prison needs to begin with efforts to educate, to socialize, and to train inmates for useful work and positive attitudes when they are released. If this doesn't happen, we are committing ourselves to life-long responsibility for these prisoners, to disrupted families without a parent and wage-earner, and to medical costs which escalate in the later years of life. The current rationing of medication in place now has been disastrous for two of the young men I write to. The effect of living in the round-the-clock noise of solitary confinement units and the lack of any human contact has been devastating for those who describe it to me as a form of torture.

Please study what is happening in those states which, with the help of the Pew Center for the States, have reduced recidivism dramatically. The inhumanity of solitary confinement needs to be ended.

Hoping for a better future,

Joyce Gouwens

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