Shedding light on solitary
UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter is one of the nation’s leading experts on U.S. prisons, solitary confinement, and mental health. From her first blog post on crime and delinquency as a Human Rights Center Fellow at UC Berkeley in 2010 to her new book (co-edited with Human Rights Center Executive Director Alexa Koenig) Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement, Reiter has illuminated egregious flaws in the United States prison system. Her forthcoming Prisons within Prisons: The Hidden Hell of the American Supermax is due out from Yale University Press next year. Reiter recently came back to Berkeley (where she earned her Ph.D. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy in 2012) to speak about the court settlement spurred by Pelican Bay prisoners that ended indefinite detention in solitary confinement in California.
Why did you start studying prisons?
While I was in college in Boston I worked with the American Friends Service committee, which is a Quaker organization that has historically done prison reform work. They were just beginning to look at solitary confinement issues in Massachusetts. That’s when I first learned about it as a practice that people were thinking about challenging.
Do any particular stories motivate your work?
The stories that come to mind first are the people who have been in isolation for 10, 15, 20 years…the people who are not able to hug their mother or sister or child. I think in particular about the people who are genuinely afraid they’ll never get out.
What is solitary confinement like in the United States?
In California’s isolation units, prisoners aren’t allowed to make phone calls. It’s a concrete cell. It’s very stark. The lights are on 24 hours a day. They don’t have contact with their families.
It’s pretty easy to think about softening a little without many safety repercussions. So why not have a window? Why not have somewhere with grass where you can go outside and see living things? Why not be able to call your family? There’s excellent research that family contact is good for mental health, good for community stability.
“I think it’s an important step to think about prisoners as people who made mistakes and think about how to make prisoners more of a part of society.”
What’s the financial burden of solitary confinement?
In California, it costs close to $90,000 per year and that’s because it takes much more staff energy to run a true isolation unit. The buildings are really expensive to maintain because people aren’t allowed out of their cells. Everything has to be done for them. So, the obvious answer is that reducing solitary confinement is potentially much cheaper.
Will the recent court settlement in California lead to any significant change in regard to solitary confinement practices?
Two big challenges with isolation in particular are that it’s been a very secretive process and there has been significant discretion over what circumstances and for how long people are sent to isolation….Now, under the recent settlement, you have to do something wrong instead of just being labeled a gang member and isolation terms are capped at five years. So that’s an improvement. But you still don’t have a right to a lawyer at the administrative hearing in which people decide whether you’ve done something wrong or not. The prison staff have a lot of control over what counts as a rule violation and who they charge with violations. Five years is a long time, and you’re under really intense scrutiny when you’re in isolation, and it’s easy to break more rules because of that.
Do we have enough information about people in solitary confinement?
I think requiring the collection of really basic data would be valuable for figuring out if these institutions work the way people say they do and just for keeping track of who’s there and why—data that hasn’t historically been available in California— literally who’s in isolation for how long, what the underlying justification is for keeping them there, what the rates of violence are in these isolation units and what happens to these people over time? Are they cycling back into isolation when they get released from prison? Are they recidivating? These are all things we don’t really collect data on or have answers to, and that kind of information would really help people think about good policies.
Is there a better model somewhere in the world?
Having been in Denmark this summer, one of the things I was struck by was more training for prison staff….I think a lot of the challenges in incarceration are about prison staff feeling like they have unmanageable jobs. They’re not listened to, and they don’t have the resources or the skills they need to manage overcrowded [prisons], [or] mentally ill, manipulative prisoners… .They’re constantly blamed for that. … There’s this liberal sense of ‘oh we can fix this from the outside’ but I think it’s going to take looking at it from the inside as well.
What can we do to make prisons better?
I think it’s an important step to think about prisoners as people who made mistakes and think about how to make prisoners more of a part of society. Again, I’m not implying in any way that there aren’t people who are dangerous and that there shouldn’t be consequences for actions. But I think if we put people away and hide them and don’t look at it ever and have no social contact with them, it creates all kinds of problems in terms of whether those people ultimately come out, or if those people are ultimately suffering unjustly, if they haven’t done anything wrong.
I would also make prisons much more open. Make them allow media in. Mandate that they allow a certain number of tours a year by educational groups, whatever we can do to try and make prisons more transparent and accessible to the general public.
Should reform of the criminal justice system be the new focus of the civil rights movement?
Yes, but I’m biased. I think everyone should care about prisons. It’s one of the most important issues facing this country, in terms of economic and social costs, the potential for rights abuses, and long-term consequences of institutionalization. But I would certainly respect someone who said it should be the environment or immigration issues.
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The Human Rights Center launched in 2015 a series of interviews to capture the stories of UC Berkeley alumni, professors, and other visitors who offer insights on protecting and defending human rights globally. For more information or to suggest a Berkeley Human Rights Q&A, email Andrea Lampros at email@example.com.