Hell hole: It's time to view solitary confinement as torture

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How would any of us like to be locked up in a tiny cell for 23 out of 24 hours a day, sometimes for years, with no human contact other than prison guards, and with no radio, TV or personal phone calls?

This is life in the hole and it is hardly any life, because the whole point is to separate humanity from the prisoner. It sounds like a debased practice of totalitarian regimes, but solitary confinement is also a staple of the U.S. prison system, including in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, incredibly given the flagrant affront to human rights, members of Congress for the first time held a hearing on solitary confinement, which a growing body of opinion has come to regard as torture, plain and simple.

The Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights heard a former inmate from Texas who spent 18 years in prison tell of his horrible time in the hole. Anthony Graves, whose conviction for involvement in multiple murders was overturned in 2006, said that solitary confinement "is inhumane and by its design it is driving men insane."

Some Americans hold little sympathy for prisoners, believing that any punishment is what they deserve. But nobody deserves to be driven mad, and that offends something else beyond basic decency -- the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." It's hard to believe that being driven to madness doesn't qualify.

Can John Carter, 32, of the North Side, be counted as a victim of solitary confinement? As the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord recently reported, this inmate died in his cell in the Restricted Housing Unit of the State Correctional Institution at Rockview in Centre County.

He was 15 when he was arrested for his secondary part in the killing of a man in a robbery attempt in the Bloomfield area, and he was sentenced to life in prison. He was a difficult prisoner and fought a guard, which landed him on the Restricted Release List, aka solitary. He died in mysterious circumstances on April 26 after barricading his cell in a dispute over food, which prompted officers in riot gear to attempt to get him out. The state says that no foul play is yet indicated. John Carter's family believes he was in the hole for his last eight to 10 years.

About 100 others in Pennsylvania prisons are on the Restricted Release List, with only their despair for a companion. As elsewhere in the nation, their treatment is justified by officials as a practical matter -- what can they be expected to do with the baddest of the bad?

Official excuses for cruelty don't cut it. If solitary confinement is torture, then criminals are themselves being held by criminal means -- and there's no excuse for that.


First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 AM


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