President Obama ordered officials in federal prisons to end solitary confinement for juveniles. That’s good. One article even praised Obama because he addressed a delicate issue in prison reform. I would not say solitary confinement is a delicate issue. It is a blatant policy of government torture. Blatant refers to illegal, immoral behavior conducted both openly and unashamedly. That describes solitary confinement.
Prison officials claim that if you take away solitary confinement, or protective custody as they euphemistically call it, you remove a key disciplinary tool. Prison guards have shown various degrees of cruelty over the centuries, but this argument combines a high degree of cruelty with a disconcerting dishonesty. Suppose you observe a boy with tweezers, pulling the wings off captured flies. You challenge him and he responds, “I pull the wings off flies to keep them from landing in my food.” You would reply, “You can’t figure out another way to deal with that nuisance?”
Here are two points about Obama’s announcement: 1) most juveniles are held in state and local, not federal prisons; 2) by restricting use of solitary confinement, Obama suggests that using this punishment according to new, more restrictive rules makes it okay. Solitary Watch reviews the president’s changes. See especially the article’s comments on the new rules. In its concluding paragraphs, the authors address problems with the president’s incremental approach: they are incomplete, but most importantly, they suggest that some uses of solitary confinement are okay. I can’t think of any instances where this practice is justified.
Parents will say that timeouts for unruly children – especially when you send them up to their room – are just solitary confinement as applied in a family setting. It’s quiet, effective, milder and more accepted than corporal punishment, and altogether does not stress parents. Whatever you think of timeouts for children, it’s not a good comparison. Timeouts last for a half hour at most, usually a lot less. Solitary confinement imposed in prisons lasts far longer than a half hour. Solitary in prisons often lasts years.
A timeout may be effective for parents because it is so brief. A misbehaving child wants to return to the family, and rapidly corrects his or her behavior to do so. That pattern of discipline does not apply to a prisoner in solitary for months and years at a time. Extended solitary as a method of discipline is merely torture. I say merely not because torture is insignificant, but because it is a form of cruelty divorced from actual discipline. It is a form of cruelty that controls and disables prisoners through quiet infliction of pain, like removing wings from captured flies.