Under the eighth amendment we as United States citizens are guaranteed that we will not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The definitions of those ambiguous words continue to be debated and defined through the legal process. Recently, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the notion that solitary confinement constitutes a legal punishment.
In Illinois, these arguments garnered some attention with the closure of Tamms Correctional Center in Southern Illinois. Pat Quinn is closing several correctional institutions around the state, one of which is the Tamms supermax. If you are not aware, Tamms Correctional Center houses some of Illinois’ most dangerous criminals. Because it is a supermax prison, prisoners are held in small cells for 23 hours a day with no social exposure besides limited interactions with prison staff. While unions are objecting to the closure Tamms, relatives of the inmates are saying that it is time for the prison to be closed for good. The allege that the way prisoners are being treated is inhuman.
If you took Dr. Gizzi’s corrections or 101 class, he always does a presentation on the correctional center. It is easy to see from that information that he presents that Tamms can and will make those housed there go crazy. Imagine being locked in a bathroom for all but one hour each day where you are unable to communicate with others. To me, something seems inherently wrong with that approach to corrections. Still there are many arguments for the use of solitary confinement style prisons. Proponents of supermax facilities argue that they serve as deterrents, insure officer safety, and punish only the most serious offenders. All of these things are true, however, these practical reasons seem not to justify the methods used. Even though an offender may have committed a heinous offense and poses a safety risk, it does not mean we should sacrifice our morality in seeing that we are safe. Retribution can only be taken so far as a correctional philosophy and these methods push those lines. Housing an inmate at a supermax is expensive and may not be worth the cost. At Tamms, an inmate costs over $50,000 a year.
In settings other than in a Supermax, solitary confinement is a tactic used to isolate an inmate for discipline or for safety. However, the ACLU alleges in the United States the practice is becoming too widespread. Holding someone in solitary confinement poses a safety and health risk as well because the inmate is likely to suffer psychological trauma from their isolation. If an offender is released from that prison to society who has been housed like an animal like those in a supermax, then they pose a long-term, serious, threat to the public.
It is unconscionable that some have had to undergo solitary confinement who have been wrongly convicted. Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three had to face this isolation for 10 years for a crime he did not commit!