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Illustration, "Counting Time," by Alan Norberg

Keynoter: Heavy U.S. reliance on solitary confinement an error that's 'especially profound'

By John Masson
Feb. 11, 2013

Summarizing his approach to opening the Michigan Journal of Race & Law's recent symposium on solitary confinement in prisons, Yale Law Prof. James Forman Jr. didn't have a hard time finding words.

"We have to make the invisible visible," Prof. Forman said. "We have to counter isolation with empathy. We have to counter isolation with community."

He admitted that's not an easy task. Prisons are designed, after all, to isolate, whether they employ solitary confinement or not. But when American jails and prisons are stuffed, as they are now, with 2.3 million people—up from 300,000 people as recently as 1970—it becomes the duty of law students and law schools to pay closer attention, he said.

"The silence in our law schools is hard to believe, when you think about it," Prof. Forman said. "We have a larger percentage of our people behind bars than any country in the world, yet law schools concentrate on the front end of the process. What about after the trial...or more likely after the plea? After the prison door closes we largely stop paying attention. We close our eyes in law schools, and we close our eyes as a society."

Prof. Forman's talk concentrated on three aspects of solitary confinement: its impact on prisoners, its context with respect to the overall state of criminal justice, and potential solutions.

He also recalled the words of various experts on solitary confinement, from Supreme Court justices to ex-POW Sen. John McCain.

"McCain says, 'It's an awful thing, solitary—it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment,' " Prof. Forman said of the senator held in solitary for long stretches by the North Vietnamese after his jet was shot down.

Those in attendance also heard via video clips from former prisoners who themselves experienced long-term solitary confinement.

Prof. Forman is no Pollyanna. There are serious problems with solitary confinement, he said, but it's also important for prisons to be able to deal effectively with people who are a threat to themselves, their fellow prisoners, and correctional officers. But he said it's becoming increasingly clear that solitary confinement is not the best way to do that.

"We can work to make sure that people sent to solitary are sent there for appropriate reasons," he said.

He also pointed out several states that have made significant progress in reducing their solitary populations: Maine, which has cut its numbers in half; Colorado, which is closing one of its "supermax" solitary prisons; Illinois, which also has closed a large facility; Mississippi, which is a national model for reducing solitary numbers; and Connecticut, which has reduced its solitary population by 75 percent in two years "with no negative impact whatsoever."

Prof. Forman summed up by noting that every generation makes its mistakes. The urgent issue is fixing them.

"History will judge some of these errors to be especially profound," Prof. Forman said. "Future generations will look back and say, 'How could they ever have let that go on?' And I think the number of people we have incarcerated—and how we treat them when we incarcerate them—will eventually be seen as an error of that sort."

The symposium featured three panels covering isolation and mental health, the prevalence of solitary confinement in Michigan, and strategies for reform. Among the panelists were Robert Hillary King, one of three prisoners held for decades in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola; Christopher Epps, head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and incoming president of the American Correctional Association; and many other academic and practitioner experts.

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