Illinois is considering limiting our prison system’s use of solitary confinement. Solitary is not Steve McQueen bouncing a baseball off the walls of the cooler: It is 23 hours a day without human contact for years with inmates slowly losing their minds.
When News-Democrat reporters in 2009 looked at the Tamms Correctional Center, they found inmates who were in solitary for 5, 10, and 13 years. The guy in solitary for 5 years was imprisoned for violating probation after initially stealing a hat and $1. He didn’t handle incarceration well and the system kept penalizing him to the point that he went to the state’s supermax.
Tamms is closed now after being declared cruel and unusual. Mental health experts said inmates were coming out worse than when they went in.
Still, our corrections system has an obligation to keep inmates safe from one another. Separation can be important for the protection of the individual as well as of the general population.
So what to do?
State Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Democrat from Chicago, is currently pushing a bill that would limit solitary confinement to no more than five consecutive days and five total days during a 150-day period. Corrections officers decry that as taking from them an important tool for maintaining safety and discipline.
But somewhere between five days and 13 years is a reasonable rule. Something other than 23 hours a day in a small concrete box is possible.
Even a dog pound gives its charges a view of the outside world and a chance to bark with others.
Illinois should find the model — certainly another of our 50 states has figured it out — and strike the balance that achieves separation for safety without becoming mental torture that leaves society faced with the release of mad dogs.