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All Alone: A commentary on the damages of solitary confinement

As most of you are probably already aware, this past Monday President Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system. He claimed that the practice is used too often and that the psychological consequences of it are too devastating to accept. In addition, the president gave a list of executive actions that would be put in place to prevent prisoners committing lower-level offenses from being punished with solitary confinement.
Currently, the maximum amount of time that a prisoner can be given solitary confinement for a first offense is a whole year, and President Obama changed this maximum to 60 days. While more adults than juveniles are subjected to solitary confinement in federal prisons, the ban is expected to result in long-term changes in state laws. Illinois and Oregon are some of the states that have already put new practices in place, such as excluding mentally ill prisoners entirely from solitary and reducing maximum sentences.
To put things into perspective, here are a few facts about solitary confinement. The average cell is approximately 80 square feet, smaller than a typical horse stable. The room contains a bed, a sink and a toilet and usually nothing else. Food is delivered through a slot in the door, just like you see in the movies. Sometimes the inmate is allowed one hour of exercise, but it is usually done in a cage.
Common effects of solitary confinement include paranoia, depression/suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, difficulty concentrating, obsessions and almost always a dramatic decline in social behavior.
When asked to speak on the issue, Obama stated, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as a whole people? It doesn’t make us safer, it’s an affront to our common humanity.” Being more of a Conservative myself, I don’t always agree with Obama’s stance on issues. This, however, I am in 100 percent agreement with.
No matter what your religious or political beliefs are, it is a fact that human beings are not meant to be alone. It is our nature to yearn for companionship in any form.
If you look at this from a Christian perspective, God created Eve so that Adam could have a partner. If you look at this from a scientific perspective, humans need mates so that they can reproduce. And if you look at this from a psychological perspective, isolation has serious effects on the brain, both short-term and long-term, depending on how long the person is left in loneliness.
Current research states that in general, the brain finishes developing around age 25. Adolescence is a key time period in intellectual and emotional development. If we are striving to turn juvenile offenders into better people, isolating them and damaging them psychologically even more than they are already damaged is actually going to produce the opposite effect. Perhaps if the federal prison system focused more on reform, mental health resources and education than it did punishment, humiliation and cruelty, we would see improvements in societal behavior rather than repeated criminal offenses and rebellion.
You cannot say that you want a world with better people, less crime and a stronger justice system if you are not willing to contribute an ounce of humanity to the situation at hand.
In all of this, I am not saying that those who commit crimes should be let off with a smack on a wrist. I am saying that instead of just throwing individuals into a small metal box, we should try to understand better why they committed the crimes that they did and how we can prevent future ones from happening. We should give them access to mental health care, as well provide them with education and counseling that can give them a sense of purpose and reason in life.
It is time that we take a harsher look at the federal prison system as it is and start to make changes that will prevent the social inequities that put people there in the first place.

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