State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, should soon vote on Senate Bill 176, a measure that would place limits on the use of solitary confinement in Colorados prisons. This bill is a call to our conscience, and we honor God when we courageously speak out against actions such as solitary confinement that harm the soul and safety of our communities.
Solitary confinement may sound merely like a long timeout for misbehaving prisoners. But in reality, it is far harsher than that, bordering on or even crossing the line to become cruel punishment. As religious leaders, we strongly believe that prolonged solitary confinement is immoral. It denies the innate human need for social interaction, and it works against the correctional systems end goal of rehabilitation by undermining the mental health of the prisoners.
Take Anne Lawlor for example. She spent a year in solitary confinement while serving a five-year sentence at the Denver Womens Correctional Facility for writing bad checks. She says she was placed in solitary after reporting an incident of guard-on-inmate rape.
I nearly lost my mind, Lawlor testified before a Colorado Senate committee. I was unable to tolerate noise, bright lights or human contact when I was released from the unit. I would shiver and panic.
Lawlor is not mentally ill, yet she felt as though she was losing her mind. How much worse then would it be for individuals who already suffer from mental illness or developmental disabilities?
The Denver Post reported that Colorado Springs resident Gary Flakes testified that the two years he spent in solitary confinement were two of the most desperate and defeating of his life. If I wasnt totally damaged and anti-social before, I certainly was when I came out, Flakes said.
We grieve knowing that when we hold prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement, especially those who suffer from mental illness, we inflict injustice and undue suffering on another human being. Our God created all people, each one of us with dignity and worth, and when we subject another human being to such cruel punishment, we strip them of these God-given rights.
While we agree with Sen. Roberts, who has stated she believes greater societal responsibility is needed to mitigate the increasing number of mentally ill who end up in prison, we know that solitary confinement is not the answer in the meantime. There should be no debate that the mentally ill do not belong in solitary for extended periods of time.
That is why the Colorado Legislature is considering SB 176, introduced by state Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, and state Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, which would limit the conditions under which prisoners may be placed in solitary. A mental-health clinician would be required to evaluate any prisoner known to be mentally ill to determine the suitability of such confinement.
Other inmates placed in solitary would undergo a mental-health evaluation after 30 days, and then after each subsequent 30 days. All inmates must be reintegrated into the general prison population six months before a release date.
The measure comes as the states Department of Corrections report shows that the proportion of prisoners in solitary confinement who have developmental disabilities or mental illness has more than doubled in a decade. That same report says that more than 40 percent of inmates who are released from solitary confinement are released directly to their community, without an opportunity to readjust to social interaction; of those, two-thirds return to prison within three years.
A Harvard psychiatrist who has studied the effects of solitary confinement for more than two decades has written that prisoners who experience extended periods of isolation experience symptoms akin to delirium.
These symptoms, said Dr. Stuart Grassian, are characterized by a decreased level of alertness, EEG abnormalities, perceptual and cognitive disturbances, fearfulness paranoia and agitation; and random, impulsive and self-destructive behavior.
We do not want people suffering from such effects released back into our communities without a period of transition.
In addition, the financial costs of solitary are high the state spends more than double per inmate per year to hold a prisoner in solitary confinement as compared with the general prison population something our state government can ill afford during these difficult economic times.
We must commit ourselves to the important work of healing the soul of our community by supporting legislation and investing in treatment programs that encourage true rehabilitation of inmates, thereby helping to decrease violence in our states neighborhoods and communities.
We stand with Colorado Interfaith Voices for Justice and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in striving to uphold our commitment to a God who demands that we respect the dignity of all human beings.
The Rev. Carlos A. Alvarez is pastor at Pope John Paul II Catholic Church and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Pagosa Springs. The Rev. Dr. Cynthia H. Chertos is Pastor at First Congregational Church of Silverton, a United Church of Christ congregation.