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The March 30 issue of the New Yorker has an article on the effects of solitary confinement that includes this account of how Britain basically got rid of the need for such inhumane treatment:

Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach.

I couldn’t help but think of the recent ACLU report about the St. Louis City Jail and Workhouse:

Inmates at the St. Louis City Jail and Workhouse are subject to abuse ranging from assaults by guards and other prisoners to sexual misconduct to systematic covering up of incidents, according to a report released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

The ACLU investigation, prompted by complaints of abuse at the two institutions, included interviews with six corrections officers and nine inmates along with media coverage of an incident where two emergency medical technicians ran into interference while trying to treat a dying inmate.

Follow me below the fold to find how the Brits–and the other European countries–have gotten a handle on the problem.

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

When I was still teaching, Madeline Hunter’s ideas were all the pedagogical rage. She had the same philosophy as the British, basically. Outline for your classes how good behavior can gain them rewards, and then be consistent–after two warnings–about dealing out penalties for bad behavior. Humans are humans whether they’re trapped in a classroom or a prison (and a few of those students didn’t see much difference).

Ah, but in this state, could we, would we, ever indulge ourselves in such rational behavior? Americans–and Missourians are no exception–can be such hardasses. The attitude would be, “Hey, this guy killed or raped or robbed somebody. Why does he deserve good treatment?” Let me answer a question with a question–two of them actually: “Do we want to train those who will eventually be released to be more violent and hateful than they were when they came in or to be less violent and hateful?” and “Do we want to create conditions where fewer guards are needed so that we taxpayers might be spared some of the expense of running prisons?”

Just asking.