Solitary confinement is an unjust system

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by Denye Mickens, sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis

Robert King has been speaking across the U.S. and around the world since he won his release in 2001. Here he is speaking in Oakland on Sept. 20, 2005. – Photo: TaSin Sabir

When I attended the Society for Neuroscientists annual conference in San Diego last month, I expected to be doused in information regarding the field’s newest knowledge and innovations. Designed to bring together 30,000 of the world’s top neuroscientists, I was so excited to be engaged in this enriching environment for the first time.

I never would have expected that I would be encompassed by emotions as I listened to the story of a man named Robert King during a roundtable discussion on contemporary social issues. King, along with two other Black men, was wrongfully convicted of murdering a white corrections officer in 1972. Known as the Angola Three, the men collectively served a whopping 114 years in solitary confinement before their innocence was confirmed and they were released in 2001, 2013 and 2016.

As King sat beside a panel of neuroscientists, social psychologists and lawyers, he spoke of his experiences and detailed the effects of his prolonged confinement. He explained how after only a few weeks with minimal human contact and only slight exposure to the outside world, he almost entirely lost his vision. His ability to navigate spaces was entirely lost, recognizing human faces became nearly impossible, and depression soon struck.

King’s experiences are not uncommon, and the panel’s leading neurobiologist Huda Akil, PhD, confirmed that the conditions of solitary confinement have been proven to cause significant changes in the structure and functionality of the human brain.

At its annual meeting in Boston in February 2017, the American Association for the Advancement of Science decided to oppose the practice of solitary confinement after Robert King spoke passionately against it. From left, the panelists are Jules Lobel, Huda Akil, Craig Haney, Peter Scharff Smith and Robert King. – Photo: Janel Kiley

When most think of solitary confinement, they think of a reprimanding system designed to punish the worst of the worst of criminals. In some ways, this is occasionally true. Prisoners who notoriously engage in mischief behind bars are sent there to suffer isolating conditions for up to 23 hours a day within cells frequently no larger than a booth in a typical restaurant.

In 2017, it was estimated that nearly 87,000 people across the nation are in some form of solitary confinement. This becomes a significant problem upon realizing that not only do prolonged stays in solitary confinement cause significant neurological issues, but Black and Brown persons are placed in these conditions at alarmingly disproportionate rates across the United States in comparison to white inmates.

For example, the Marshall Project, a criminal justice nonprofit, reported, “In California state prisons, Hispanic men make up 42 percent of male prisoners, but 86 percent of male prisoners in restricted housing.” In many states, Black men are even worse off. For some, the period of confinement is only a few days or a week, but for far too many like the Angola Three, being sent to solitary confinement means years – or even decades – without ever being released.

Denye Mickens

In attempts to punish bad behavior, solitary confinement itself is unjust and inhumane. From the disproportionate number of minority peoples admitted – whether actually guilty or not – to the cognitive and physical effects of confinement, the system is morally wrong. Denying individuals the ability to have and seek human contact denies the fact that we are innately social beings, and the effects of loneliness are unthinkable, harsh and frequently irreversible.

This is not to say that the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement has not decreased slightly throughout the past decade, but much more work still needs to be done to reform our legal system. For it to actually be just, we must seek to undo our vengeful practices and refocus our agenda to rehabilitating the individuals who need it most.

Denye Mickens, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, majoring in biology and sociology, can be reached at mickensda@wustl.edu.

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