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Viewpoint: An accidental death penalty

BY GABE NEWLAND

Published January 29, 2013

Suppose you’re the governor of Michigan. Great lakes, great times. Or maybe not. Remember solitary confinement? That expensive practice the Department of Corrections does on behalf of Michigan taxpayers? They lock almost 1,000 prisoners — hundreds of them mentally ill — inside isolated segregation cells. For days and months and years, prisoners spend 23 hours per day in these cramped cubes. Alone. Where silence screams and thoughts become voices.

Sometimes people die. Timothy Souders, a mentally ill prisoner serving one to four years, spent the last four days of his life strapped to a steel bed until he died of thirst. He was naked, soaked in his own urine. And he’s not alone. Jeffrey Clark, Ozy Vaughn and Anthony McManus recently suffered similar fates.

But don’t worry, governor. You can fix this, and it’ll save Michigan money. Look at the recent reforms in Mississippi. Only six years ago, they held almost 1,300 prisoners in long-term segregation. Cells were ovens and psychotic prisoners screamed through the night. Violence spread. In response, Mississippi tried something different — they reduced their solitary population by 85 percent. Violence plummeted, behavior improved and Mississippi saved more than $5 million per year.

How did they do it? Two key components: First, the state overhauled its classification system, which determines where prisoners go: minimum, medium or maximum security. Instead of isolating the worst of the worst, they’d been isolating prisoners they were mad at. And that’s expensive. A good classification system rewards good behavior, allowing you to possibly move from maximum to medium security. In Mississippi, they knew how to punish but forgot to reward. And they’ve now learned an important lesson — one-way ratchets only ratchet up costs. More solitary, more money.

Second, Mississippi began diverting mentally ill prisoners out of solitary and into mental health units. Prisoners who needed it got treatment, not punishment. And that’s smart. Isolated prisoners are more likely to hurt themselves, and they’re more likely to hurt others when released. Anti-social isolation produces anti-social behavior.

In the end, Mississippi successfully reduced the number of prisoners in isolation to about 300. That saved money, jobs and lives. In The New York Times article, Christopher Epps, the Republican-appointed commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and incoming president of the American Correctional Association, described how he initially believed prisoners should be locked down for as long as possible. But he now sees things differently. “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.” The reforms were nerve-racking, he explained. “But it worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.”

Follow Mississippi, governor. Mistreating prisoners is a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars. Work with state legislators and the Department of Corrections. Make it stop. Who knows? Maybe Michigan voters will applaud your wonkish heroism. You know what they’ll say? That’s one tough nerd.

To learn more about the mistreatment of criminals in the state and beyond, check out the Michigan Journal of Race & Law's symposium on solitary confinement, to be held this Saturday, Feb. 2 beginning at 8:30 a.m. Panels will be held in room 1225, South Hall located in the Law Quad.

Gabe Newland is a Law student.


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