In one of its better recent episodes, Frontline looked at the rise of solitary confinement in American prisons. Like so many other mindlessly punitive and counterproductive aspects of our justice system, solitary confinement exploded in popularity during the Reagan years. The rationale sounds good on the surface – to remove inmates who are so violent and dangerous that the staff and other inmates are not safe around them. The problem, as the medical profession has known for well over a century, is that solitary confinement makes people insane. Like, really insane. And quickly. Take a superficially normal person, seal them in a box with next to nothing to do, surround their cage with other solitary inmates of dubious mental fitness, and wait about two months. See how normal they are then.
Our correctional and justice systems have been flawed for generations. In the last three decades, however, things have gone from flawed to irreparable. The bad ideas and the institutional pathologies have compounded one another as one harebrained Tough on Crime scheme after another – each chosen not because evidence suggested they would be effective but because they made old, wussy elected officials look Tough – was implemented to disastrous effect. It's hard to pinpoint just one factor as the predominant cause of the overcrowded, back-breakingly expensive mess we now have: abandoning the concept of rehabilitation in favor of a Dickensian punitive approach, mandatory minimum sentencing, the War on Drugs, the collapse of the manufacturing base in the 1970s and 1980s (When the factories and mills disappear, the prisons never fail to open up in their place), laws that target the poor and are designed to keep them trapped in the criminal justice system in perpetuity, the inability of convicted felons to get jobs and loans…take your pick. It is any of those and all of them.
If it feels like nothing we try to reform the prison system works it is because it is too far gone to be reformed. Sometimes I feel like the only thing we can do is burn it down to the ground and start over from scratch. It sounds like a desperate solution because it is, and if it sounds like a joke it's not. If nothing can fix this mess, then let's take everyone who hasn't committed a violent felony, release them, wipe the slate clean, and start over with a prison system that does something beyond warehouse the poor and ensure that everyone who leaves prison does so more violent, angry, and socially maladjusted than when they entered.
While the correctional systems in other countries are not flawless, the U.S. system stands alone among its peer nations for the dysfunction in our courts and prisons. Our prison system more closely resembles Mexico or Brazil than EU nations, Canada, or Japan. We are doing so many things that don't work that changing any single one is like bailing out the Titanic with a bucket. So we keep doing the things we know don't work – solitary confinement, for example – because we can't think of anything better or we lack the political will and intelligence to implement useful changes. It is fitting that so many Americans believe Criminals are beyond redemption since that phrase describes the prisons that hold them perfectly.