Steve Chapman

But less than a century later, all of that was forgotten in a frenzy of tough-on-crime measures, including "supermax" prisons that imposed extreme isolation on the worst offenders -- and, in the words of a federal court, skirted "the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience."

Many inmates find the experience beyond the edge of tolerability. The most vulnerable ones "suffer from states of florid psychotic delirium, marked by severe hallucinatory confusion, disorientation ... and by intense agitation and paranoia," wrote Grassian in the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy.

Even the strongest individuals, he noted, "will experience a degree of stupor" as well as "obsessional thinking, agitation, irritability, and difficulty tolerating external stimuli." Inmates in solitary, a study found, are seven times more likely to commit suicide than similar prisoners in normal cells. For those who survive, the emotional effects can last for decades.

Politicians may be disinclined to worry about the use of extreme isolation, much less to take action to improve the treatment of criminals. But there are at least two good reasons for the law-abiding citizenry to care.

The first is cost. Housing a prisoner in isolation costs as much as sending him to Harvard -- about $60,000 a year, at least double the expense of normal incarceration. This policy is one reason states now spend eight times as much on corrections as they did 30 years ago.

The second reason is that most of these inmates won't be incarcerated forever. The vast majority will be released back into society. Extreme isolation is about the worst possible training for living and working peaceably among others.

That is a problem, and not only for the ex-convict. Every day, someone who was held in solitary confinement and may be suffering from agitation, irritability and difficulty tolerating external stimuli leaves prison. And the external stimuli he can't tolerate could be you.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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