And the Senate will consider solitary confinement one month after the largest prison guard union in Texas called for the curtailment of the use of solitary on the state’s death row. Let me say that again: Prison guards in Texas, the
world’s nation’s epicenter of capital punishment, have come to believe that isolating prisoners in this fashion is self-defeating. As the title of the Congressional hearing suggests, there is today, indeed, a great deal of “reassessment” of solitary confinement not just in moral terms but in practical, political, economic and legal ones as well.
Something clearly is happening here and it’s not just based upon some slight uptick in public acknowledgment of the immorality of confining fellow human beings to such cruelty no matter what their crimes. There is movement here because there is growing evidence that the inhumane treatment of prisoners is neither safe nor efficient. There is movement here because there is now a strong economic case for prison reform. There is movement, in other words, even though there still is an overwhelming lack of empathy toward the punished.
But to understand precisely what is happening, and where this new reformist sentiment might lead, it’s important to understand how deep is the American penchant for punishment—and especially for cruel punishment. It is important to appreciate how conservative an industry the corrections industry is, how much institutional and emotional inertia exists blocking reform to it, and how much lobbying power and money exists to keep people in prison. And it is important to know how stacked the law is against the inmates themselves.”