Solitary confinement is a cruel method for destroying an inmate’s will and self-worth. That’s precisely why prison systems use it, and why its abuse in Florida is bad for prisoners and public safety alike.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ Natalie Weber chronicled in a report Sunday, St. Petersburg resident Chez-Armand Blackwell spent about 12 of his nearly 15 years in Florida prisons in what the civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center defines as solitary confinement. The 39-year-old said he was first placed in solitary after a physical argument with a guard; after that, Blackwell said, guards continued writing him up, extending the time he spent alone as he served his sentence for burglary.
Twelve years in solitary is obscene, especially if it became an open-ended punishment for routine infractions that kept stacking up. The United Nations, noting the mental pain and suffering that solitary can cause, has likened the practice to torture and called for limiting solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. Yet according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, about 10,000 people are in solitary confinement in Florida, with many falling in the same demographics as Blackwell: young, Black and male. The center has sued the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice on behalf of adults and juveniles over its use.
Florida’s corrections department denies that it uses solitary confinement, but that claim comes with a huge asterisk. Department officials acknowledged in a statement to the Times that some inmates are held in a restrictive form of housing without a cellmate. The agency sometimes separates inmates from the general population and places them in what it calls “Close Management.” Of those, the department said, a “majority” are placed in with another inmate; of about 4,100 inmates in Close Management, about 1,880 are in single cells, the department said.
This game of semantics may mean something to state bureaucrats, but the toll on inmates in isolation is the same. Experts, advocates and those who have been incarcerated all acknowledge that prison systems use various forms of isolation that constitute solitary confinement. The U.N., for example, notes that there is no universal definition for solitary, because practices vary among jurisdictions. But whatever the term, segregating and isolating inmates has the same debilitating effect, by removing them from normal human interactions as a way to induce anxiety and disrupt routine.
Researchers at Florida State University and the University of Cincinnati also found that Florida inmates in certain demographic groups are more likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement. Researchers reviewed records for almost 192,000 people incarcerated in the Florida prison system between July 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2015, and found that Black people were almost twice as likely to be placed in long-term solitary while Hispanics were 1.7 times more likely to be in long-term solitary than white inmates. Younger adults were 15 times more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than those 50 and older and a disproportionate number in solitary were prisoners with mental health needs.
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In March, an activist who grew up in Tampa and had been incarcerated in Florida, detailed his experiences in solitary for a New York Times column. “I served 18 consecutive years in isolation because each minor disciplinary infraction — like having a magazine that had another prisoner’s name on the mailing label — added an additional six months to my time in solitary confinement,” Ian Manuel wrote. “Before I knew it, months in solitary bled into years, years into almost two decades.”
Florida lawmakers need to examine how the prison system is using isolation and explore whether the practice is merely covering for staff shortages, inadequacies in inmate mental health services or some other poor excuse. Solitary is not only harsh on a human being; it undermines the role of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. If most inmates are eventually released, what goal is served by crippling the emotional health of those assimilating back into society?
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.