Alex Kozinski, the famous former chief of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, thinks solitary confinement is a punishment that’s just as bad as the death penalty — if not worse.
“Sending hardened criminals from death row to solitary confinement is no triumph,” writes Kozinski in a January 15 editorial for the Yale Law Review Journal. “It merely swaps one type of death for another.”
Kozinski’s sentiments are part of a broader movement to ban solitary confinement across the US that has had some success in recent months.
The New York state government recently agreed to a host of reforms, including limiting the time served in solitary confinement to three months, and allowing inmates monthly phone calls and group recreation, following a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, reports The New York Times.
According to Kozinski, death penalty abolitionists are fighting the wrong fight. There are 3,000 prisoners on death row in the US, and while that’s a huge number, it pales in comparison to the 100,000 suffering in administrative segregation (another term for solitary confinement) in prisons across the country, writes Kozinski, citing the Death Penalty Information Center.
“Taking prisoners off death row and putting them in supermax prisons may soothe our collective conscience,” writes Kozinski. “But we may be condemning those inmates to decades-long torture that may make a swift execution look like an act of grace.”
Indeed, some members of the public may share this view. Several potential jurors in the trial of Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told lawyers they believe
“life imprisonment is the harsher of the two options while the death penalty is ‘the easy way out,'” reports The Washington Post.
It’s clear that solitary confinement does take a toll on inmates. Inmates in solitary confinement are five times more likely to kill themselves than those in general population, according to a study of Maine state prisons cited by Kozinski.
When confined to a single room with little outside contact, some inmates develop acute mental illness, become anxious and aggressive, and hurt themselves, according to a psychiatric evaluation of inmates cited by Kozinski.
“You have nothing but four walls and a steel door … You end up slowly slipping,” exonerated death row inmate Anthony Graves told Business Insider. Graves added, “The situation makes you hopeless.”
Moreover, Kozinski argues, it’s also much easier to consign someone to solitary confinement than it is to sentence someone to death.
Even though the outcomes are comparably horrible, a death sentence involves a “decades-long, multi-jurisdictional tango,” while inmates can be sentenced to long-term solitary confinement as long as prison officials justify it through “some kind of hearing,” writes Kozinski.
Those who want to fix the prison system, Kozinski writes, should spend their energy “agitating for reform in this dank corner of our criminal justice system.”
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