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Illustration, "Counting Time," by Alan Norberg

MLaw Symposium Tackles Solitary Confinement in America

By John Masson
Jan. 8, 2013

It's hard to imagine anyone in America knowing more about solitary confinement than the members of the Angola Three, a trio of Louisiana prisoners who were held in solitary for decades after the murder of a prison guard.

So it's fitting that one of the three men, who was released from prison because his conviction was overturned, will appear as a panelist Feb. 2 as part of a Michigan Journal of Race & Law symposium.

The one-day gathering, "Inhumane and Ineffective: Solitary Confinement in Michigan and Beyond," is designed to explore the impact of solitary on those who are subjected to it, said Michigan Law 2L Karla Johnson, this year's symposium chair. Johnson said Robert King's harrowing experience will offer a unique perspective.

"He was in solitary confinement for 29 years, and that's just mind-boggling—I just turned 29 this year," Johnson said. "It's one thing to know about solitary confinement through research, but it's another thing entirely to have experienced it."

King will be on the first of three panels, "Isolation and Mental Health," moderated by Michigan Law Prof. Kimberly Thomas. He'll be joined by UCLA law Prof. Sharon Dolovich and UC Santa Cruz psychology Prof. Craig Haney.

A second panel, "Crisis in Michigan," will be moderated by Michigan Law Prof. David Santacroce and will feature leading prison reform litigators Elizabeth Alexander and Patricia Streeter. Streeter, based in Ann Arbor, has been working with Alexander in a long-standing class action lawsuit seeking better health care for prisoners in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections. Alexander is a former director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

The third panel, tackling "Strategies for Reform," will be moderated by University of Toledo College of Law Prof. Jelani Jefferson Exum and features James Austin, the leading expert on prisoner classification in the nation; Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps; ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi; Michigan Law Prof. Margo Schlanger; and University of Pennsylvania Prof. Marie Gottschalk, author of the hugely influential book The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America.

Prof. James Forman, Jr., of Yale Law School, is scheduled to keynote the symposium.

Prof. Schlanger said she welcomes the opportunity to discuss the problems that come with solitary confinement and a related phenomenon, so-called supermax prisons—facilities designed around the concept of solitary confinement.

"Now that there are 2.3 million people in prison in this country, it's really important to think about what conditions are like there," Prof. Schlanger said. "Fortunately, dozens of prisoners-rights and faith-based groups have been advocating to reduce our reliance on solitary—to get the people who run prisons to think about who they're putting into solitary, and why."

Prof. Schlanger served as reporter for the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, which includes recommendations about which prisoners should go to solitary confinement, and for how long.

She added that the goals of solitary confinement—mainly safety and security, both for the prisoners housed in solitary and for guards and the prison's general population—can be accomplished just as well by putting only "a tiny fraction" of the current number of prisoners in solitary. Add in the mental health and rehabilitation issues exacerbated by stints in solitary confinement, Prof. Schlanger said, and many states are deciding solitary simply isn't worth it.

"In state after state, serious inquiries into who really needs to be in solitary have de-populated supermaxes and other solitary facilities," Prof. Schlanger said. As for the idea of supermax prisons in general, she added, "they have a 'build it, and they will come' quality. We built them, and we filled them up, and we don't need them."

Unfortunately, that knowledge comes too late to help the Angola Three—especially the two who remain behind bars. That's why the memories of someone like King are so important, Johnson said.

"We want to be able to understand what it's like," to spend year after year in solitary, she said. "And we want to know how he was able to make it through."

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