Justice Kennedy on Solitary Confinement

Adam B at Daily Kos points out something very interesting. In a case involving peremptory challenges to potential jurors, Justice Kennedy wrote a seemingly out of the blue, unrelated concurrence that strongly criticized the practice of solitary confinement. Here’s what he wrote:

In response to a question, respondent’s counsel advised the Court that, since being sentenced to death in 1989, Ayala has served the great majority of his more than 25 years in custody in “administrative segregation” or, as it is better known, solitary confinement. Counsel for petitioner did not have a clear opportunity to enter the discussion, and the precise details of respondent’s conditions of confinement are not established in the record. Yet if his solitary confinement follows the usual pattern, it is likely respondent has been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day; and in the one hour when he leaves it, he likely is allowed little or no opportunity for conversation or interaction with anyone. It is estimated that 25,000 inmates in the United States are currently serving their sentence in whole or substantial part in solitary confinement, many regardless of their conduct in prison. Ibid.

The human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation long has been understood, and questioned, by writers and commentators. Eighteenth-century British prison reformer John Howard wrote “that criminals who had affected an air of boldness during their trial, and appeared quite unconcerned at the pronouncing sentence upon them, were struck with horror, and shed tears when brought to these darksome solitary abodes.” In literature, Charles Dickens recounted the toil of Dr. Manette, whose 18 years of isolation in One Hundred and Five, North Tower, caused him, even years after his release, to lapse in and out of a mindless state with almost no awareness or appreciation for time or his surroundings. And even Manette, while imprisoned, had a work bench and tools to make shoes, a type of diversion no doubt denied many of today’s inmates.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, this Court recognized that, even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears “a further terror and peculiar mark of infamy.” (“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short [solitary] confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition . . . and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide”). The past centuries’ experience and consideration of this issue is discussed at length in texts such as The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (1995), a joint disciplinary work edited by law professor Norval Morris and professor of medicine and psychiatry David Rothman that discusses the deprivations attendant to solitary confinement.

Yet despite scholarly discussion and some commentary from other sources, the condition in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest. To be sure, cases on prison procedures and conditions do reach the courts. Sentencing judges, moreover, devote considerable time and thought to their task. There is no accepted mechanism, however, for them to take into account, when sentencing a defendant, whether the time in prison will or should be served in solitary. So in many cases, it is as if a judge had no choice but to say: “In imposing this capital sentence, the court is well aware that during the many years you will serve in prison before your execution, the penal system has a solitary confinement regime that will bring you to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself.” Even if the law were to condone or permit this added punishment, so stark an outcome ought not to be the result of society’s simple unawareness or indifference.

Too often, discussion in the legal academy and among practitioners and policymakers concentrates simply on the adjudication of guilt or innocence. Too easily ignored is the question of what comes next. Prisoners are shut away—out of sight, out of mind. It seems fair to suggest that, in decades past, the public may have assumed lawyers and judges were engaged in a careful assessment of correctional policies, while most lawyers and judges assumed these matters were for the policymakers and correctional experts.

There are indications of a new and growing awareness in the broader public of the subject of corrections and of solitary confinement in particular. And penalogical and psychology experts, including scholars in the legal academy, continue to offer essential information and analysis.

These are but a few examples of the expert scholarship that, along with continued attention from the legal community, no doubt will aid in the consideration of the many issues solitary confinement presents. And consideration of these issues is needed. Of course, prison officials must have discretion to decide that in some instances temporary, solitary confinement is a useful or necessary means to impose discipline and to protect prison employees and other inmates. But research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price. In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required, within its proper jurisdiction and authority, to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.

Over 150 years ago, Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” There is truth to this in our own time.

It sounds to me like Kennedy is pretty much begging for a court challenge to solitary confinement in which he can rule precisely that way, hoping to get the four liberals on the court to join him. I hope there’s one coming.

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  • illdoittomorrow

    Adam B:

    “[…]the penal system has a solitary confinement regime that will bring you to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself.”

    Feature, not bug. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!!11!!


    It sounds to me like Kennedy is pretty much begging for a court challenge to solitary confinement in which he can rule precisely that way, hoping to get the four liberals on the court to join him.

    Dang librul activist judges! Thanks, Obama!


    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

    Well if it wasn’t for you libruls and your activist judges, we could just put them all to death instead of letting them all go and not have this problem!

  • k_machine

    But they broke a rule! Now we get to hurt as much as we want! /s

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @illdoittomorrow, #1:

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.

    I’m going to go with sarcasm because the alternative is just too disgusting, and because ‘nym.


    This is an issue particularly important to me. It’s not like i only care about trans folks, of course, but my experience as a trans* person has made me particularly aware of how easily I could end up in solitary. Once I became aware of that, the personal stake made me read more about prison conditions with a special but not exclusive emphasis on rape, sexual assault, and solitary confinement.

    On reading that, I don’t think my being trans* had anything to do with my reaction. I would hope that anyone would be repulsed who read sufficiently about the nature of adseg, the effects it has on those confined, the arbitrary and unjust nature of decisions about whom wardens will isolate, the horrific lengths of solitary periods even when it might reasonably be justified for a minimal period, and, finally, the way that isolation is used as an excuse to avoid doing work that would more effectively create safety for the imprisoned and the corrections workers alike.

    I may be educated about this stuff because of personal motivations arising out of living a trans* life, but this shit has to be ended for everyone, period.

    May Kennedy’s begging find the ears of the next Dee Farmer – and soon.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    It’s a barbaric practice, and I think a majority of Americans are quite comfortable with their government behaving barbarically.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty — Survivor

    So… how are we supposed to deal with certain prisoners who put other prisoners (and guards) in danger, if not solitary?

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden


    There are lots of ways – and it takes a variety of techniques, with some working for some problems and some working for others. But when solitary is used, it can’t be used as an indefinite system for keeping some people safe from some others.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty — Survivor

    I get that long-term solitary isn’t a good thing.

    I agree that it should NOT be used for every little infraction by a prisoner — that just seems disproportionate and cruel. There need to be many intermediate steps before someone is sent to solitary. And even then, when someone is sent to solitary, it needs to be for a set amount of time (limited to a week, maximum, maybe?), and only for a handful of well-defined offenses.

    I think it is needed, though, as an absolute last resort. Kind of like a time-out within a time-out…

  • David C Brayton

    Even if the Supreme Court does something about it, I doubt it will ever make any meaningful difference. The folks that run our penal system are all about the ‘punishment’. Way too many people, especially the guards, think that prison should be a brutal, dehumanizing place and they work hard to make it that way.