Review of 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and The Rise of Solitary Confinement by Keramet Reiter
Solitary confinement. Isolation. Supermax prisons. No matter what you call it, it’s inhumane to keep someone in total isolation for months, years, and decades with little or no human contact. This book provides a detailed history of how solitary confinement has progressed through the years to the deplorable conditions that exist today.
I am an opponent of capital punishment. I’ve always believed that someone losing their freedom was punishment enough. As one prison warden said, prison is meant to be punishment for a crime. It’s not meant to give additional punishment once an inmate gets there. Kearmet Reiter’s new book looks at the misconceptions and harsh realities of solitary confinement.
In the past, prisoners given solitary confinement still had access to exercise yards, natural light, gardens, and activities to keep their mind occupied. The length of time an inmate might have to spend in solitary confinement was usually not more than a few weeks. Unfortunately, solitary confinement today has devolved to the point where inmates are routinely placed in isolation with little or no stimulation for decades. What is that like? Try locking yourself in your bathroom for twenty-three hours a day with nothing to do but look at the walls. Then do that for ten years. Twenty years. Thirty years.
The author’s focus is on California’s Supermax prison Pelican Bay, where seventy-eight prisoners have lived in isolation for more than twenty years. Across the United States, some 20,000 prisoners live in similar conditions. Author Kearmet Reiter examines the history of Pelican Bay and the impact on those unfortunate soles caught up in the prison bureaucracy that allows this state-sanctioned torture to continue. Along the way she covers topics such as mass incarceration, indeterminate sentencing, prisoner hunger strikes, the lack of mental health care for prisoners, and the misuse of the label “worst of the worst.” She also describes the negative physiological effects of lengthy solitary confinement as well as the difficulties prisoners have adapting to life on the outside once released.
This is a well-researched book that should be required reading for anyone in the criminal justice system and anyone who cares for human decency. This review is based on a pre-release copy of the book.