America seems finally ready to talk about its trouble with prisons. Despite the fervor surrounding “tough on crime” tyrants like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the high cost of incarceration and the fact that the U.S. tops lists of global incarceration rate is starting to make the issue less politically volatile. Case in point: the recent Senate hearing to consider banning solitary confinement for certain inmates.
According to The New York Times, Anthony Graves testified about spending over a decade in isolation on death row for a crime a he didn’t commit. TIME told the story of Damon Thibodeaux who “spent 23 hours a day for 15 years in solitary confinement,” calling it “a hopeless existence.” This testimony, along with that of prison officials, and Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman, shed light on a common practice in U.S. prison, a practice costly both in dollars and the psychological toll it takes on inmates.
Prisoners who spend extended periods in solitary confinement have lasting psychological after-effects and the practice has little-to-no benefit with respect to inmate behavior. If anything it makes things worse. Inmates are more likely to use violence towards other inmates or themselves.
It is also far more expensive to keep inmates in confinement than it is to keep them in other ways. According to NPR, “it costs about $78,000 a year house someone in the federal system in solitary,” as opposed to an average of $22,000 to maintain an inmate in general population. And for all of that extra cost, the inmates are often left with both mental and physical—in the case of those who self-mutilate and/or attempt suicide—scars.
Still, any eventual legislation will have a tough battle on the Senate (or, eventually, House) floor, especially because it’s a mid-term election year. Support of this bill could easily translate into an attack ad that paints an incumbent as “soft” on crime.