System Overhaul: Stop Isolating Prisons

The State of California recently conceded that its policy of keeping prisoners in isolation demanded an overhaul. Now can we overhaul our system of isolating prisons?

The State of California recently conceded that its policy of keeping prisoners in isolation demanded an overhaul. Now can we overhaul our system of isolating prisons?

As the prison activists and lawyers who forced California to change made clear, human beings are social animals. Isolation breaks spirits and souls and minds. So too, isolating our prisons from the centers of our body politic, breaks our society’s connection to the institutions our social systems have created.

As MacArthur Genius award winning public defender Bryan Stevenson writes, he was already a lawyer before he met his first death row inmate.

The fight against social segregation stopped too soon. We came to accept that isolation and segregation were wrong for homes and schools, so how come we cart our prisoners off to the most remote places we can find?

As Bryan Stevenson’s grandmother , the daughter of slaves told him, “You can’t understand most of the important things in life from a distance. You have to get close.”

At this point, the state of New York’s incarceration system’s less about justice than about distributing public money from downstate to up. It’s a development scheme. But the social cost of this removal is measured in the invisibility of people in prison – from our consciousness. Changing the status quo sometimes seems impossible, but it’s made more so by how intangible it is – when the people caught up in it - both prisoners and staff – so rarely actually talk to us, the voters who permit mass incarceration to continue.

When we sentence offenders, we assumes that every one is the community is a victim. Hence all that “The State vs. Jane Doe" and "The People vs. “ language. How about we be consistent. 2.3 million in prison, 6 million on probation and parole. We’re shooting, gassing, hanging and electrocuting hundreds of people and keeping more languishing on death row. We’re the only country in the world that locks up kids in isolation. We make terrible mistakes. Mostly permitting race, poverty and illness to lead to death - or lock up for life.

Proximity could change this, as Stevenson’s grandmother said. We need to break ourselves, not just our prisoners, out of isolation.