Within the walls of many prisons, inmates found to have threatened the peace or order of the facility are placed in solitary confinement. Barred from human contact, these prisoners are locked typically in tiny, windowless cells for nearly all hours of the day. Some are held there for years.
“The hole” is a common term for the official torment of solitary confinement, which is under growing attack in the United States by mental health professionals, civil libertarians and others. Research has shown that inmates subjected to prolonged isolation suffer from physical and psychological damage, an outcome likely to incite vindictive behavior upon release. Innocent people are often the victims.
While criminals should not be coddled while serving their prison sentences, solitary confinement is an affront not only to human rights but also to liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment explicitly forbids the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Despite the severity of solitary confinement, some inmates in Pennsylvania are still given the harsh punishment when they commit new infractions while in prison.
In 2010, Robert Veith — a Hill District man who, at the time, was in the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh for repeat offenses of theft, burglary and robbery — was moved into solitary confinement after speaking out when someone allegedly tampered with the food of a fellow prisoner perceived to be a pedophile.
After five months in solitary, a prison official exonerated Mr. Veith of wrongdoing, but a staff change caused the prisoner to be left there for another three months. In a lawsuit settlement made public last week, the state will be awarding Mr. Veith $30,000 in compensation. The award is part of the $386,000 total the state has paid due to lawsuits filed after the hazing of sex-crime inmates at the prison by corrections officers.
Society’s criminals should serve their time in prison conditions that foster rehabilitation. Solitary confinement, like the eight-month span mistakenly given Robert Veith, isn’t likely to help anyone return to the straight and narrow.