“I live in a box. . . Imagine being locked in your bathroom but instead of a tub there’s a bed. . . . It’s a very dehumanizing experience to suffer living like this for months. I’ve been doing it for years trying to survive.”
That's how William describes his life in a Montana State Prison solitary cell.
At 8 a.m. Friday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold Montana's first ever hearing on solitary confinement.
House Bill 536 would prohibit the state from locking juvenile and mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement for more than three days in a 30 days period, would require that corrections officials accurately assess the mental state of prisoners before putting them into solitary, prohibit solitary confinement of prisoners in protective custody (unless they request it) and would prohibit prisoners from being kept in solitary one year prior to their release.
Inmates in Montana State Prison's "Locked Housing Unit" (solitary) spend 23 hours a day in a cramped cell with no outside light and no human contact other than a tray of food pushed through a slot in the door.
Five days a week, for one hour, the inmate can leave his cell to shower or spend time in an open-air metal cage. A basketball hoop is the only thing in that cage. Nothing of the outside world is visible but a small patch of sky. It's inhumane and it's wrong.
Even children and mentally ill prisoners can be subjected to these conditions for weeks, months or years. You heard about what happens to these prisoners when our client Raistlen Katka, despairing in isolation, tried multiple times to kill himself.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says the “potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”
Also standing against solitary confinement are people from many different faiths. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture makes ending prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails one of its top priorities.
And if you don't care about the prisoners themselves, maybe the effect solitary confinement has on communities will persuade you. As it stands now, many prisoners are released directly from solitary confinement onto the streets without any kind of rehabilitation, counseling or training to prepare them for re-entry into our communities. This increases their chances of re-offending and landing back in prison.
And solitary confinement comes at a great financial cost to taxpayers. A 2007 study in Arizona found that placing a prisoner in solitary confinement cost $50,000 per year compared to $20,000 per year for the average prisoner. The Mississippi Department of Corrections reformed its solitary confinement program, reducing the number of prisoners in isolation by more than 75 percent, saving the state $5.6 million a year.
Other states have reformed their use of solitary confinement. Montana can, too.