Article written by Morgan Leyenberger and originally published as a part of the Arkansas Times "Big Ideas for Arkansas 2018"
Imagine sitting by yourself for an hour in a small room. Imagine not talking to anyone except a correctional officer who you must ask for food, not checking your cell phone, not being allowed to leave. Imagine 23 hours of this. Imagine days, weeks, months, years of isolation. In our contemporary world, we can hardly handle putting the phone down before bed. Humans are social creatures, and we typically have dozens or hundreds of social interactions each day — unless you're one of a few thousand people locked in an isolation cell in Arkansas's prisons.
The Arkansas Department of Correction uses these isolation cells as a form of punishment — and in some cases protection — to separate inmates from the general population. After our state prisons experienced an uptick in violence and riots in 2017, the Department of Correction announced its intention to build 400 new solitary confinement cells. An additional 400 beds will mean that on any given day, up to 16 percent of the state prison population can be confined to extreme lockdown and social isolation.
But the sensory deprivation and extreme isolation of solitary confinements fails to help inmates, correctional officers or the prison system at large. It usually just causes more harm.
This summer, prisoners in isolation at Tucker Maximum Prison and Varner broke out and held correctional officers hostage. They were apparently demanding better living conditions. The response to these incidents, in addition to more isolation, has been to shut down religious and educational programs — punishing the entire inmate population for a systemic failure.
Arkansas calls isolation cells "restrictive housing," and the act of isolating inmates "administrative segregation" or "punitive isolation." Regardless of what it's called, it's the same practice that many states are moving away from because they consider it to be potentially torturous. People with mental illness and drug dependency disorders, gang members and victims of violence and sexual assault are among the people overrepresented in solitary confinement nationally. Arkansas already employs high rates of solitary confinement. It has not stopped violencenow and it will not in the future.
Instead of doubling down on solitary, we would be wise to learn from these mistakes and move forward with evidence-based alternatives.
Arkansas should entirely eliminate solitary confinement and instead build program-rich communities that support safe, healthy rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Inmates could earn privileges to participate in self-help groups, vocation training, exercise classes, family visits, religious or spiritual services and other enriching activities. Rather than tossing someone into isolation, these programs will increase prosocial behavior and provide people with the necessary skills to reintegrate into society when they are released. Each facility should have a team of licensed mental health providers to address underlying mental health conditions, drug and alcohol disorders and treat trauma that arises from incarceration, including inhumane isolation conditions.
With some imagination and creativity, existing correctional facilities can be reimagined to increase the amount of community space like classrooms, recreation areas and dining halls. Inmates could create flower and food gardens, offering important vocation training for a career in horticulture and much-needed time in nature for socializing and healing.
Each correctional facility should be entirely focused on encouraging diverse program offerings and providing positive incentives for good behavior.
Punishing negative behavior should only be used in extreme cases of violence. After all, prison itself is the punishment, and further punishment is demoralizing and creates the conditions of violence and hopelessness. Placing someone in isolation should require an external council, and should have a time cap of one month, if used at all.
These suggestions are not groundbreaking, but they are working in states like Colorado, Washington and New York. Our next-door neighbor, Mississippi, reduced its prison violence by 70 percent two years after it relocated a significant portion of the supermax population into the general population. While it will take planning and investment in programming to pull off, ultimately alternatives to isolation are less expensive and far more effective than our current practices, not to mention significantly more humane and reasonable.
Morgan Leyenberger is a licensed master social worker and executive director of Compassion Works for All, a prison outreach organization in Little Rock. She is on the board of directors of the Ecumenical Buddhist Society and co-chairs the decARcerate campaign to end mass incarceration in Arkansas.