America has a mass incarceration problem. This has been well documented by many people and slowly, states are trying to change how they handle the large prison population. Per capita, the US has more prisoners than any other nation. Russia and China are our nearest competitors and they have fewer prisoners than we do. America’s treatment of prisoners is usually better than most other nations where prisoners are rife with disease and poor treatment. However, before anyone feels too good about America’s prisoners, we have to consider the cruelty of solitary confinement, especially for youth prisoners.
Lock Up Nation
The reasons that we put people in prison and the lengths that we put people in prison is problematic enough. Presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) has made it apart of her campaign, especially as former California state attorney general and a former prosecutor. However, a stark tragedy is occurring for young people in prison.
Solitary confinement is as bad as it sounds. Prisoners are put, by themselves, into a room, no larger than your average sized bathroom with a sink/toilet combination and a raised platform to serve as a bed. They can be kept there for as long as 23 hours a day. In a recent NPR article, they reported on Venita Browder, a mother who lost her son who committed suicide after a long stay in solitary confinement.
Harming Young People
America’s prison system is good at very little but one of the things it’s good at is creating career criminals. This is especially true for young criminals. In the case of Venita Browder, whose son was accused of stealing a backpack which he said he did not do and was sent to New York’s infamous Riker’s Island for the crime. Solitary is often used to control unruly prisoners or those with mental health issues exacerbated by the harsh realities of prison life.
The damage inflicted on young people, with developing bodies and brains, can be catastrophic and can result in a life of crime that might not have happened otherwise. States are taking the lead on reform here again. In the same article, Indiana reported changing out the guard’s dress and they deal with prisoner behavior issues, using solitary only as a short punishment before putting youths back into the general population. However, not all states are doing such a good job.
Another Area of Reform
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a helpful think-tank on the rights of Americans, has labeled solitary confinement as a form of torture which should be unconstitutional under the 4th amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU has brought it up to the UN and there is international law backing this idea. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1992, speaks extensively about the treatment of prisoners and what rights they have according to the agreement.
The above video shows that the US is clearly in violation of international agreements we are a party to and we need to focus on reforms at the state and local level to make sure that all prisoner treatment aligns with international standards and values. Unfortunately, those reforms will come too late for Venita Browder and her son.