Why Do We Condone Prison Torture in Wisconsin and U.S. ?

Gladstone Gaol 40
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In a remarkable article, Journal Sentinel reporter Gina Barton reveals the work of a Buddhist minister and the religious social justice group WISDOM to call attention to the fact that Wisconsin’s solitary confinement policy often amounts to torture as defined by the United Nations.

Using the odd euphemism “segregation”, an ironic term in light of the high rate of black imprisonment in Wisconsin, the Department of Corrections in 2012 held some 600 prisoners in various forms of solitary confinement anywhere from 6 to 12 months, 14 of whom had been in solitary for more than 10 years. Barton reports that nearly half– 46.1%– of prisoners in solitary in WI have diagnosed mental illnesses, not surprising when it is well-known that being locked in solitary deprivation over time causes and exacerbates mental illness.

Barton notes that the United Nations considers, based on research, any solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days to be essentially a form of torture, and the U.N. wants a ban on solitary lock-ups for children and anyone suffering with mental illness. (To my mind, even a week of solitary deprivation seems cruel.)  While isolating prisoners for their own short-term protection is sometimes necessary, isolation as extended punishment serves no humane purpose, the U.N. concludes. In a report for the U.N. prepared by Juan Mendez in 2011 on the nature of solitary confinement, Mendez spoke of his findings:

“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system . . . Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”

Wisconsin, by the way, is one of the many U.S. states that allow children to be charged as adults for some crimes, while also allowing for children under age 18 to be housed in prison with adults and to sometimes be separated from adults or other juveniles in solitary confinement, reports Human Rights Watch. Kirk Gunderson, age 17, was placed in solitary confinement in a La Crosse County jail back in 2005 and committed suicide. (Where is the federal legislation to ban juvenile solitary detention and make other solitary confinement reforms?) (see note below)

WISDOM sent an open letter to Gov. Walker back in July asking for his help in ending solitary confinement abuse as documented by the Center for Investigative Journalism. And today the group is asking Walker and state legislators to spend an hour in a model of a solitary cell which it hopes will spur a state reform of solitary punishment as mandated by the U.N.

Whether Walker or any of our majority Republicans actually subjects himself/herself to solitary confinement is doubtful, but perhaps the publicity will put more pressure on them to make substantial changes. Hopefully candidate Mary Burke will speak in favor of ending the prison torture of solitary “segregation” in Wisconsin.

On the secular side of civil rights for prisoners, the American Civil Liberties Union is quite active in the fight to end the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement, and provides readers with plenty of stories and reports on this particularly American form of cruel and unusual punishment: between 20,000 and 80,000 people are living (if that’s the word) in solitary lock-up in the United States every day.

Note: Here is a proposed H.R. bill to ban juvenile solitary detention in juvenile facilities.

Postscript: The Wisconsin State Journal covered the WISDOM solitary confinement protest rally on the steps of the Capitol building but did not mention any politician willing to spend some time in the model confinement cell.  Beyond “segregation”, we learn of a new DOC euphemism for solitary confinement: “restrictive housing.” How creative.

Postscript: A study on prisoner self-harm in NYC jails found it increased during solitary confinement.

P.S.– And here’s a recent Amnesty International piece on one man’s experience in solitary confinement in a California state prison.

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