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Isolated and Ill

A Tucson group fights to end solitary confinement in Arizona's prisons

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Inmates in solitary confinement are faced with a contradiction: They have no privacy, but they also have no meaningful human contact.

Living in a confined world of in-betweens can be maddening, and even deadly, according to the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, which advocates on behalf of prisoners.

At a recent forum kicking off the AFSC's campaign to end solitary confinement in the state, the group's promoters began by airing a 60 Minutes segment on the death of Timothy Souders, a mentally ill prisoner in Michigan who was chained down for up to 17 hours at a time in his cell. A videotape captured the moment when Souders eventually keeled over dead from dehydration after one such episode.

"You wouldn't imagine these days that a mental patient could be chained to a concrete slab by prison guards until he died of thirst, but that's how Timothy Souders died, and he is not the only one," said reporter Scott Pelley in the introduction to the story, which is available at www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/08/60minutes/main2448074.shtml.

Such isolation techniques are used in Arizona's long-term solitary confinement facilities housed in the Eyman Prison Complex in Florence, where inmates spend upwards of 23 hours a day in a cell, with a legally mandated one-hour recreation period.

The AFSC said such conditions are egregiously abusive--particularly for the mentally ill, who are more likely to end up in some form of solitary for disruptive behavior.

The forum coincided with the release of a blistering study by the AFSC called Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona's Prisons and Jails on the use of prolonged isolation techniques in the state's prison system. Its authors sprinkled it with anecdotes gleaned from prisoners, written from behind bars, as well as statistical information gathered from the state itself.

Supermax facilities--prisons in which inmates are locked down for 23 hours per day--were at one time quite rare in the United States, but in the past two decades, they have been instituted in 44 states, according to numerous studies by Professor Daniel P. Mears, an associate professor at Florida State University. Mears' study Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons cited statistics that claim some 20,000 inmates, or 2 percent of the total prison population in the United States, were housed in such facilities 1998. Mears' study also says that there is reason for skepticism about the facilities' efficacy in controlling prison populations, as well as the so-called "human costs."

One of the most cogent points in the AFSC report was that the mentally ill, because of their illnesses, are not able to follow prison rules as effectively as the mentally fit. They get punished for this, further exacerbating their illnesses and setting off a downward spiral that can result in long periods of isolation. There are an estimated 300,000 mentally ill Americans in prison, who, the 60 Minutes report points out, are often sent there because they have nowhere else to go, as the country's behavioral-health system has crumbled.

Even those without mental illness who get placed in solitary confinement can end up developing disorders as a result of solitary confinement, said Matthew Lowen, AFSC program coordinator. AFSC claims it has received complaints from inmates about cockroach infestations, incessant noise and poor medical care--in addition to the lack of human contact.

"Usually, the people who end up there are not what would be considered the worst of the worst, but generally tend to be a little more fragile mentally and socially," he said. "The basis of prison management is that you have to follow rules, and people who have mental illness or untreated mental illness aren't able to conform to those rules as well as you or I. And so there's punishment."

In addition, Lowen said death-row inmates are unnecessarily housed in such facilities as a matter of course, when, because of age or other factors, they are not necessarily the most dangerous members of the prison population.

The impending execution of Robert Comer--whose sentence was carried out Tuesday morning (May 22)--kept Arizona Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katie Decker from commenting on the report.

"I'm literally up to my eyeballs in execution--and so is all my staff," she said. (Decker did promise to get in touch after the media circus surrounding the state's first execution since 2000 died down, and the Weekly will post her reaction at blog.tucsonweekly.com.)

The report also took aim at the confinement procedures in some of the state's juvenile-detention centers, citing evidence gathered during a federal investigation that was launched after the death of three minors.

As part of an agreement with the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, the Department of Justice has issued semiannual reports on conditions in juvenile-detention facilities. There's widespread acknowledgement in these reports and elsewhere that the department has made a fair amount of progress since the investigation concluded in 2004.

In fact, March's assessment noted that the state was in "substantial compliance" with federal directives on the use of "exclusion," or confinement. It noted that department was following through on orders to hold a due-process hearing to determine whether juveniles held in confinement for longer than 24 hours should remain there.

A phone call to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections was referred to Matthew Scheller, the attorney general liaison, who said strict criteria had been developed to meet the standards set by the federal government.

"All of it has passed federal scrutiny," he said. "There are many things we have worked on. Our goal is to be on substantial compliance on everything, and follow that into the future."

Scheller refused to comment on the AFSC's recommendation that a permanent oversight committee be established to oversee juvenile corrections, but did say that the sixth--and supposedly final--federal-government report doesn't have to be the last.

"There is the possibility if the federal government and the monitors wanted to, they can continue to monitor us," he said.

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