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Lecture addresses reforming prisons

Posted on 03.27.2013

Executive Director of The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana Jane Henegar spoke at an event hosted by Chapel Steward of Justice Mark Wolfe on March 11. The event focused on prison reform but also informed students about what the ACLU does.

“Our only job is suing the government,” Henegar said. “We sue the government when they are violating citizens’ rights.”

Henegar addressed the treatment of mentally ill citizens in prison. She explained that the guards at prisons see an inmate act out, and because most guards are not trained about mental illness, they use punishment to control this activity, often putting the inmates in solitary confinement.

“Solitary confinement is torture,”  Henegar said. “There are many symptoms that can come out of being in solitary confinement. And those can be hallucinations, revenge fantasies, irrational lack of impact control, talking to themselves and many more.”

Inmates in solitary confinement may have no human interaction from six months to four years in some cases, depending on their actions.

Henegar quoted the memoir of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), saying, “It [solitary confinement] crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Henegar said that people in solitary confinement are three times more likely  to commit suicide than the general population because they are going insane in solitary confinement. An inmate often is  secluded in a room that usually is 80 square feet or less for 23 hours with only a sink, toilet, bed and a solid door. According to Henegar, inmates are lucky to get any daylight or human contact. Meals are slid through a slot or a window, depending on the prison.

“This doesn’t make the prison safer; it makes the prisoners go insane,” Henegar said. “The units also cost more money for the prison to have.”

Henegar used the phrase “school to prison pipeline”—a notion that the way the education system treats young people leads them to being incarcerated. One example Henegar mentioned was the way students are impacted because of the way they are raised at home or treated in school.

“If you don’t get support at home or at school, you oftentimes get put into this system of incarceration,” Wolfe said.

The state of Mississippi showed this action is fixable. Henegar said that all the state did was to reduce gradually the number of prisoners in solitary confinement until they were able to close the facilities.

“This took at most 10 years for Mississippi to fix,” Henegar said. “They then saved $8 million a year.”

Henegar said that many people self-medicate undetected mental illnesses with drugs or alcohol. This causes them to make irrational decisions and end up in prison.

“Seventy percent of burglars tested positive for a number of illegal substances. And 100 percent of prostitutes were tested positive as well for a number of illegal substances,” Henegar said.

Henegar said that the effects of being in solitary confinement last even after release from prison,  increasing recidivism.

“Most likely, you will see them return to prison, and the process will start all over again,” Henegar said. “This has become a problem, and it is taking time for people to realize it.”

Wolfe said that something must be done about the treatment of inmates.

“I couldn’t imagine how having no activity would be,” Wolfe said. “I would go insane myself.”


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