As US Senate leaders met on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 to hear testimony on the grave costs of solitary confinement in US prisons, Arizona finds itself the only state in the country with plans to build new maximum-security prison beds. The construction of these 500 new max beds will only further place Arizona out of step with the rest of the country on this critical issue.
Arizona plans to spend $50 million just to build these new max beds to the Lewis Complex in Buckeye. Already, maximum-security facilities cost the state at least twice as much per prisoner than the average per person cost of incarceration. However it is the long-term costs of such a facility that remain absent from the conversation, at least in Arizona.
In our neighboring state of Colorado, the Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch is willing to do more than talk. Raemisch condemned the use of solitary confinement after spending 20 hours in his own maximum-security unit and vowed, “If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use.”
It is undeniable that solitary confinement causes and exacerbates mental illness, and has long lasting negative impacts for prisoners even after they have been released. Over half of the suicides in prison take place in solitary confinement. Yet routinely mentally ill prisoners are confined to solitary confinement for years at a time – at higher rates than prisoners without mental health issues.
Arizona is currently being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for lack of adequate medical and mental health care. These constitutional issues of adequate care are only made worse by solitary confinement. One of the attorneys on the class-action case was quoted saying, “The prison conditions in Arizona are among the worst I’ve ever seen.” The state will likely spend millions of our tax dollars on legal fees simply defending itself against the suit, not to mention the cost of rectifying any unconstitutional conditions.
These facilities require more correctional officers, at higher rates of pay. If solitary confinement is meant to curb violence, why are the rates of assaults so often higher than in other prison facilities? Placing more prisoners in solitary confinement will create more problems than solutions, especially in the Lewis Complex where in the last month alone there have been eight prisoners injured during a riot and at least one guard assaulted.
Sen. Durbin summed it up perfectly. “All of these issues lead to the obvious conclusion: we need to reassess solitary confinement and honestly reform policies which do not make us safer.” Following the hearing, Sen. Durbin and others called on state and federal agencies to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, the mentally ill, and pregnant women.