Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Archipelago of Pain | Opinion | The Seattle Times

The Archipelago of Pain | Opinion | The Seattle Times

We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews
or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in
social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades
at a time.

We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a
distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the
brain where pain resides, this is a distinction without a difference.
Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared
the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people
suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking
at the screens side by side ... you wouldn’t have been able to tell the

The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at
the level of human experience, social pain is more traumatic, more
destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than
physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation is
arguably more inhumane than flogging.

Yet inflicting extreme social pain is more or less standard procedure
in America’s prisons. Something like 80,000 prisoners are put in
solitary confinement every year. Prisoners isolated in super-maximum
facilities are often locked away in a 6-foot by 9-foot or 8-foot by
10-foot barren room. They may be completely isolated in that room for
two days a week. For the remaining five, they may be locked away for 23
hours a day and permitted an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced-in

If there is communication with the prison staff, it might take place
through an intercom. Communication with the world beyond is minimal. If
there are visitors, conversation may be conducted through a video
screen. Prisoners may go years without affectionately touching another
human being. Their only physical contact will be brushing up against a
guard as he puts on shackles for trips to the exercise yard.

In general, mammals do not do well in isolation. In the 1950s, Harry
Harlow studied monkeys who had been isolated. The ones who were isolated
for longer periods went into emotional shock, rocking back and forth.
One in six refused to eat after being reintegrated and died within five
days. Most of the rest were permanently withdrawn.

Studies on birds, rats and mice consistently show isolated animals
suffer from impoverished neural growth compared with socially engaged
animals, especially in areas where short-term memory and threat
perception are processed. Studies on Yugoslav prisoners of war in 1992
found those who had suffered blunt blows to the head and those who had
been socially isolated suffered the greatest damage to brain

Some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely
affected by it. But this is not typical. The majority of prisoners in
solitary suffer severely — from headaches, an oversensitivity to
stimuli, digestion problems, loss of appetite, self-mutilation, chronic
dizziness, loss of the ability to concentrate, hallucinations, illusions
or paranoid ideas.

The psychiatrist Stuart Grassian conducted in-depth interviews with
more than 200 prisoners in solitary and concluded that about a third
developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. According to rough
estimates, as many as half the suicides in prison take place in
solitary, even though isolated prisoners make up only about 5 percent of
the population.

Prison officials argue that they need isolation to preserve order.
But the research on the effectiveness of solitary confinement programs
is ambiguous at best. There’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that
prison violence is not produced mainly by a few bad individuals who can
be removed from the mainstream. Rather, violence is caused by conditions
and prison culture. If there’s crowding, a culture of violence, and
anarchic or arbitrary power, the context itself is going to create
violence no matter how many “bad seeds” are segregated away.

Fortunately, we seem to be at a moment when public opinion is
turning. Last month, the executive director of the Colorado prisons,
Rick Raemisch, wrote a moving first-person Op-Ed article in The Times
about his short, voluntary stay in solitary. Colorado will no longer
send prisoners with severe mental illnesses into solitary. New York
officials recently agreed to new guidelines limiting the time prisoners
can spend in isolation. Before long, one suspects, extreme isolation
will be unacceptable.

The larger point is we need to obliterate the assumption that inflicting social pain is OK because it’s not real pain.

When you put people in prison, you are imposing pain on them. But
that doesn’t mean you have to gouge out the nourishment that humans need
for health, which is social, emotional and relational.

© , New York Times News Service

David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

No comments: