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Solitary lockup: Who does it serve, and how is the public affected?

Like criminal justice authorities in other states, Missouri penal officials employ the tool of solitary confinement to isolate select prisoners from the larger prison population.

Solitary confinement -- also referred to sometimes as administrative segregation -- is certainly nothing new in American prisons, with inmates convicted of state charges or federal crimes often ending up in segregated lockup.

Is solitary confinement effective?

The answer to that query will obviously vary depending on the audience being asked the question. The efficacy of administrative segregation is certainly a debated matter marked by wide-ranging opinions.

If the query is posed to Rick Raemisch, though, the response will be quick and unequivocal. The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections believes that solitary confinement is unjustified, even for inmates who have committed serious crimes.

Raemisch explained his reasoning in a recent opinion piece written for the New York Times.

Foremost, says Raemisch, a prison is typically “a dumping ground for the mentally ill,” with severely impaired individuals often “dumped” in segregated lockup.

That might serve a short-term purpose, notes Raemisch, but only for authorities seeking to maintain order. Research indicates that adverse psychological effects result for segregated inmates, and that this in turn has negative consequences for the general public.

The reason why is obvious, of course: Most prisoners return to public life eventually, and society is not well served if they are psychologically scarred in material ways by periods spent in isolation while imprisoned.

Raemisch says that the task of the criminal justice system is to safeguard the public, “not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in.”

Raemisch is far from being alone in his opinion, with some states currently addressing solitary confinement through reform initiatives. We will revisit this topic for readers if material developments occur in Missouri.

Source: The New York Times, "My night in solitary," Rick Raemisch," Feb. 20, 2014

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