Students from the Edgar Fellows Program hosted a solitary confinement panel discussion on Nov. 21, where participants learned about the practice of isolating inmates in a cell for 22-24 hours a day. Panel members included professor of sociology William Lofquist, Jail Administrator for Allegany County Chris Ivers and former convict Victor Pate. Lofquist began the discussion by expounding a summary of mass incarceration within the United States. He explained that the amount of inmates in prison is a policy choice and that since the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. has chosen to employ a policy of mass incarceration.
In order to establish the point that the amount of imprisonment at any time or place constitutes a policy choice, Lofquist introduced his argument by debunking the adage “you do the crime, you do the time.” This notoriously trite proverb wrongfully defines crime and criminals as staple constructs, thereby implying that crime requires punishment and that no other viable policies exist.
Challenging the assumption that crime drives punishment, state and federal prison populations have drastically increased over the past 40 years, meaning that U.S. legislators and law enforcement officers have undergone a dramatic change in how they respond to crime. Furthermore, although the U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population, we account for 22 percent of the incarceration population in the world.
“Especially when compared to our so-called ‘peer nations,’ the U.S. sets itself apart in a totally different category,” Lofquist said. “It’s almost as though we have a whole other policy—because we do.”
Reflected in the popularity of television shows like “Orange is the New Black,” policy choices in favor of mass incarceration have normalized imprisonment. As a result, it has become visible in American politics, economic policy and popular culture.
“Ex-cons have become commonplace in our society,” Lofquist said. “This would not have been true in past generations.”
Distinguishing a point of origin for the shift toward mass incarceration, Lofquist directed the audience to the end of the Civil Rights Movement, from which mass imprisonment policies came as a response to the threatened endurance of white supremacy.
Although the 40-year increase in rates of incarceration plateaued following 9/11, mass incarceration practices have survived. They have been especially catalyzed by the discretionary and racially discriminatory War on Drugs.
Addressing the use of punishment in jails, Ivers—who is the administrator of a 164-person prison facility in Allegany County—described the bar-free housing unit that his inmates inhabit. In addition, Ivers explained the complicated use of “administrative segregation”—or solitary confinement—as a means of both punishment and protection of at-risk populations, which includes both transgender and mentally ill prisoners.
With the understanding that human existence requires social interaction, Ivers emphasized that inmates assigned to administrative segregation still receive one hour of television and recreational time, as well as policy-driven interaction with officers. This is designed to prevent the loss of trust and strike-backs.
In terms of policy options for improvement, however, Ivers suggested mental health reform, good pre-trial release programs and early-intervention programs that target behavioral modification.
During the conversation, participants also heard from solitary confinement survivor Pate, who works with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Solitary Confinement. Pate advocates for the end of such practices.
“[Solitary confinement] is no way to treat people,” Pate said. “You can’t treat people inhumanely and expect them to come out humane. Instead, they often come out of isolation even worse.”