‘It could have been me’: Why we need to reform solitary confinement in Pennsylvania | Opinion

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By Emily Schmid

It could just as easily have been me. That’s all I can think listening to formerly incarcerated individuals tell me stories about their time in solitary confinement.

Had I been born in slightly different circumstances, I could have been imprisoned. I could have been placed in segregated housing. I could have been denied access to a trash can and forced to leave sanitary napkins piled up in a corner of my cell where I eat and sleep.

It could just as easily have been me.

Working as the advocacy programs associate with the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, it has been far too easy for me to identify individuals who have been affected by solitary confinement in the Keystone State.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, nearly 5 percent of the 46,374 people in county, state, and federal prisons and jails in Pennsylvania were reported as being held in segregation as of February 2019.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania ranks 8th in the country for the number of prisoners who have spent three or more years in solitary.

This is in direct conflict with the inmate handbook of the Corrections Department, which restricts solitary sentences to 90 days per infraction.

This guideline falls short of the 2015 United Nations Guidelines for the Treatment of Prisoners, which states that solitary confinement should not be used in excess of fifteen consecutive days and should only be used as a last resort.

Bills now before the House and Senate Judiciary committees would address this injustice. The House version of the bill (HB497) is sponsored by Rep. Tina Davis, D-Bucks. Its Senate companion (SB832) is sponsored by Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia.

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The legislation would prohibit solitary confinement for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, people under the age of 18, LGBTQ identifying persons, and elderly prisoners. The legislation would also limit solitary to 15 days for all other inmates.

The widespread use of solitary confinement is unacceptable. It is commonly believed that only the most violent prisoners are placed in solitary.

However, according to a 2015 study from the Vera Institute of Justice, more than 80% of inmates written up for “failure to obey an order” in Pennsylvania were placed in restrictive housing. The truth is, it could just as easily have been me.

The trauma that solitary confinement inflicts upon individuals is unacceptable. Copious evidence documents the harmful physical and psychological effects of solitary confinement.

While some may say that prisoners have committed wrongdoing and therefore deserve their punishment, from a pragmatic standpoint, housing an inmate in solitary confinement is more expensive than in the general population.

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Solitary doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective. On average it costs $42,727 to house a prisoner in general population, but it costs approximately $75,000 to house someone in solitary.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Mississippi has saved nearly $8 million annually on its prison costs after adopting reforms to its solitary confinement practices.

Prison staff are hesitant to restrict the practice of solitary confinement due to safety concerns. However, studies have shown that solitary confinement can actually make prisons more dangerous due to creating a hostile environment for staff and prisoners alike.

Reforms have led to increased safety in states such as Colorado and Washington state. Colorado reported their lowest rate of prisoner on staff assaults in 9 years after they lowered their solitary confinement population by 85 percent.

The Christian faith community is concerned about this issue because we believe every human being is deserving of redemption, and solitary confinement is a major roadblock to prisoners’ successful re-entry into society due to harmful physical and psychological effects.

We believe in loving one’s neighbor as you would love yourself. I see myself reflected in the stories of people who have spent time in solitary because I could be in their shoes. But for the grace of God go I.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is moving in the right direction, but when policy falls short legislative action is necessary.

We call upon the House and Senate Judiciary committees to report the Davis and Farnese bills to the floor for a vote to limit the practice of solitary in state prisons.

Emily Schmid is the advocacy programs associate and Episcopal Service Corps fellow at the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.