The American criminal justice system has two primary purposes. First, the system serves to protect the public from harm and hold individuals accountable for threatening public safety and wellbeing. Second, the system serves to protect the rights of individuals who have been accused and/or convicted of criminal wrongdoing. When too much emphasis is placed on one goal as opposed to the other, the system becomes imbalanced and one population or another tends to suffer.
Within the incarceration system, the same priorities apply. Correctional officers must protect the safety of the general inmate population and hold individuals accountable if they attempt to threaten that safety. But correctional officers must also protect the rights of all incarcerated individuals, even those that have committed wrongdoing within the correctional system itself.
The New York Times recently published a piece related to an investigation into solitary confinement practices. In one state, inmates are sentenced to solitary confinement for 512 days on average simply for violating the correctional system’s policy on social media use. Certainly, it is important that correctional policies are enforced. But sentencing an individual to solitary confinement for more than one year for a non-violent offense is clearly a case of imbalance in correctional facility priorities.
Solitary confinement often results in shame, mental trauma and emotional trauma. It is a practice that must be used at times to ensure the safety of others inside a correctional facility. But just as punishments must not be cruel, unusual or imbalanced outside of correctional facility walls, they must not be inside of them either.
Source: The New York Times, "The Shame of Solitary Confinement," Emily Bazelon, Feb. 19, 2015