Official torture:The criticism against solitary confinement is rising

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Prisons are not hotels required to treat their inmates as pampered guests. But they are required -- by the U.S. Constitution, no less -- to treat them humanely. One of the ways that departments of correction use to manage unruly prisoners does not meet that basic requirement.

Solitary confinement is the polite way of describing official torture. The "hole" conveys a better sense of what it means to be locked up in a tiny cell, as in Pennsylvania, for 23 hours out of 24, for months if not years on end.

Last June, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on solitary confinement, a congressional first and a sign of the growing awareness of how problematic the practice is. A former prisoner testified that "by its design it is driving men insane."

It's not just liberals who are taking note. Last month conservative stalwart George F. Will wrote -- and the Post-Gazette printed -- a column which conceded the harm done by solitary confinement, a more expensive form of incarceration which "probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of 'cruel and unusual punishments.' "

It is a practice that invites lawsuits. The latest was filed March 11 by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the American Civil Liberties Union in the Middle District of U.S. District Court. Its focus is on stopping the cruelty of putting inmates with mental illness into solitary confinement.

The lawsuit says the "horrific conditions" in restricted housing makes mental illness worse for those who have it, about 33 percent of those assigned to such detention. Robert W. Meek, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network, told the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord that inmates with serious mental illness "always serve their maximum time because they cannot keep themselves together enough to make parole. Those people hit the street in a very bad situation, and the likelihood of their recidivism is high -- extremely high."

So everybody loses, including the taxpayers, but the greatest loss is to simple humanity. With luck, this lawsuit will spur changes in the use of solitary confinement.

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