How The Irish Do Solitary Confinement
July 23, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Don’t be terribly jealous, you poor working stiffs, but due to my being on vacation across the pond, I looked into Ireland’s criminal justice system to see how they do it. After all, we keep telling ourselves that ours may not be perfect, but it’s the best there is. What a great opportunity to make fun of the Irish for not being as cool as us, right?
There is obviously a much smaller rate of incarceration in Ireland than United States, but I could be anywhere on the planet and still make that point. After a bit of digging, I found a recent Irish court ruling that dealt with a current issue of intense debate in America. While we try to determine the proper place for solitary confinement, Ireland has already found an answer to the question. There is none.
In a decision by Ireland’s High Court, Justice Aileen Donnelly denied a U.S. request to extradite Irish citizen Ali Charaf Damache. America wanted Damache for “terror-related activities,” whatever that means. Amidst the vagaries common to terror investigations, Justice Donnelly’s denial was clear and simple. American prisons routinely punish their inmates by placing them in solitary confinement. Since the Irish Constitution holds such a practice to be a form of torture, this Judge could not, in good or legal conscience, allow extradition to such a land.
When we as Americans think about blocked extraditions, we tend to think of it as something we do to other, less advanced countries. But as the international community begins to voice disapproval over the way we criminalize and incarcerate our own citizens, we find that we, not they, are the ones who with backward ways. We, not they, need changing.
Prison is punishment, but within prison, there is an entire disciplinary system for those who break the rules. These rules prohibit acts of extreme violence all the way down to getting on the wrong corrections officer’s nerves. Violating these written and unwritten directives can land an inmate in a prison inside the prison. The most severe (sanctioned) system of non-lethal punishment within our prisons is solitary confinement. The short definition of this practice is the restriction of an inmate in a small, often windowless cell for days, weeks, months, or even years.
When Justice Donnelly told American lawyers that they could not take Damache back to the United States, she did not merely claim that solitary confinement is torture as though it were a settled fact. She did what all good judges do and based it upon evidence.
The Court’s ruling focused on evidence about the effects of solitary confinement on mental health and psychological suffering. Experts testified to the wide range of adverse impacts that have been documented as harms associated with solitary confinement, including depression, hallucinations, heart palpitations and memory loss.
The American public has only recently begun to talk about solitary confinement. For a long time, we believed that such a punishment was utilized only as a last resort, only to remove the most dangerous inmates from the general population. However, with the tragic death of Kalief Browder, America was introduced to the reality of solitary confinement and its pervasive use as a catchall form of punishment.
The inherent cruelty of sending anyone to “the box” is a point of view that is becoming more popular as its reality becomes better understood. No one outside of law enforcement credibly endorses prolonged periods of solitary confinement as a rehabilitative measure. Even President Obama addressed the issue of solitary confinement in his recent speech before the NAACP. In spite of Obama’s words, in America, solitary confinement remains legal and its use pervasive.
But we have seen what happens to our international standing when we figure out how close we can get to the “torture” line without going over. When one of our staunchest allies looks at us and questions our ability and/or willingness to abide by basic moral standards, we must recognize the significance of the problem.
What does it say about us that we have a criminal justice system that has forced Ireland to choose between abiding by an extradition treaty or its own constitutional prohibitions on torture?
Why do we allow this practice to not only exist, but to exist in such an erratically destructive and unregulated form? Those who are in power and those who have been in power grew up in a different time. Instead of Kalief Browder and Frontline, they were watching Otis, the Mayberry town drunk, pop into Sheriff Andy Griffith’s jail to sleep it off for the night. It was pleasant to watch because we never saw Andy and Barney in full riot gear storm Otis’s cell to beat him into submission and then send him to “the hole” for a week.
A blind eye is often turned to the trials and tribulations of the prison inmate because they are, to so many people, bad by definition. They are so easy to refuse to think about, especially in a world with so many other issues to deal with. But when we ignore the plight of the prisoner, we do so at our own peril. Nelson Mandela had a few thoughts on the matter:
It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats it highest citizens, but it lowest ones.
And they do not get much lower than incarcerated criminals and it does not get much worse than they way we treat them.
For those of us who have seen how easy it is for an innocent or a good person to be sent off to jail and forgotten, we recognize the true cruelty of solitary confinement. The vast majority of the time, a person comes out of jail a worse person than when they went in. From everything we are just now beginning to really see, the person who is forced to spend prolonged periods of time in solitary confinement often comes out severely damaged.
Setting up a system that “throws the book” at criminals using any available form of cruelty and depravity is incongruous with a criminal justice system that eventually releases inmates back into the general public. While many seek reform of our nation’s correctional facilities because they see humanity in people who may have broken the law, softening America’s prisons benefits us all, not just the inmates.
Our prisons are an embarrassment. We have a lot to change but the first, and easiest thing to do is end solitary confinement. It will go a long way toward repairing our reputation abroad. But ultimately, it just makes sense to stop throwing people in a box that destroys their humanity, only to send them back into society when their sentence is up.