Trend toward solitary confinement worries experts
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January 9, 1998
The world of solitary confinement
Web posted at: 8:29 p.m. EST (0129 GMT)
From Correspondent Peg Tyre
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the World Trade Center bombing, received one of the longest, harshest sentences in history Thursday, continuing a trend that troubles some human rights activists and corrections experts.
In fact, it could ultimately prove to be harmful to the very society the punishment is meant to protect.
Yousef was sentenced to 240 years plus life in solitary confinement Thursday by Judge Kevin T. Duffy. The judge recommended that Yousef be allowed to see only his lawyers and not be allowed to make phone calls, even to his family.
While many applauded the sentence, David Levin of Prisoners Legal Services objects.
"It's really death by incarceration. You're really putting someone to a slow, psychological death, and I think that is really cruel and unusual punishment," Levin said.
Last year, Luis Felipe, head of the notorious Latin Kings gang, was given a similar sentence, which included virtually no human contact for the rest of his life because he ordered people killed from his prison cell.
A federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was the first of what are called SuperMax, or super-maximum-security, prisons. The concept began in 1983 when, after inmates killed two guards, a prison-wide, 23-hour "lockdown" was ordered that allows inmates one hour out of their cells for solitary exercise.
The concept caught on, and another SuperMax prison was opened two years later in Florence, Colorado. Others, like the one in Pelican Bay, California, followed.
Memory loss, hallucination, craziness
But doctors who have studied the effect of solitary confinement say it can be harmful on the prisoners.
Dr. Henry Weinstein, a psychiatrist who has studied prisoners in solitary, says they suffered symptoms ranging from "memory loss to severe anxiety to hallucinations to delusions and, under the severest cases of sensory deprivation, people go crazy."
Corrections professionals say they need SuperMax facilities as an incentive for good behavior, and that prisoners understand they can earn their way out into the general population.
But some corrections experts say the trend toward solitary confinement makes their job more dangerous. Such a prisoner, they say, has no reason not to attack, maim or even kill a guard.
What concerns corrections experts and human rights activists alike is that more and more state prisoners begin and end their sentences in solitary confinement.
While it is most unlikely that Ramzi Yousef will ever see the outside of a prison, there are many others now in solitary confinement who will. And after years of being deprived of human contact, they may not be model citizens.
"Most of these people that are in these cells, 23 hours a day, are going to eventually be released," said Levin, "and they are going to come out a lot worse than how they went in."