Transforming the System


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Respecting the dignity of incarcerated individuals

The conditions in prisons should ensure that incarcerated people’ basic human rights are respected. Solitary confinement is commonly used in American prisons. However, even short periods of time in solitary confinement can cause mental health issues and severely impact imprisoned persons.

“[P]risoners exposed to solitary confinement become verbally and physically aggressive; develop fantasy worlds and other paranoid psychoses; and grow anxious, withdrawn, and hopeless. . . . One early study found that nearly all of the prisoners in Maine’s isolation unit had either contemplated or attempted suicide.”

President Obama acknowledged the impact of solitary confinement and has called for its ban with young people and people with mental health issues in federal facilities, noting that is “linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior.” Local and state governments should adopt measures similar to those adopted by the federal government.

Prisons should also be able to accommodate persons of varying abilities and gender profiles. Incarcerated persons should not be subject to hostile conditions because of their sexuality, race, gender, or age. There should be adequate protections in place to prevent sexual abuse in prisons. Women and LGBTQ incarcerated people should be protected against targeting by prison staff and from sexual exploitation and abuse. Incarcerated people should also be provided with access to adequate hygiene products. Moreover, persons with physical disabilities should be provided with reasonable accommodations pursuant to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These provisions should include, for example, access to a video phone for incarcerated individuals who are deaf.

Imprisoned persons should also have access to educational programs and vocations to facilitate their successful reintegration into the community.

To achieve the goal of fostering positive prison conditions, Congress and state governments should:

  • Provide incentives to state governments and prisons that successfully reduce the occurrence of prison rape consistent with the mandates of the Prison Rape Elimination Act;
  • Abolish the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and individuals with mental, psychiatric, and/or physical issues;
  • Prohibit the use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days in all circumstances and bar its use as a form of punishment;
  • Promote flexible visitation policies that encourage incarcerated individuals to maintain familial and community relationships;
  • Ensure that video phone calls are treated solely as a supplement to in-person visits, rather than a replacement for them;
  • Place incarcerated people in the least restrictive housing required for their safety and adopt policies in line the recommendations of the Department of Justice;
  • “Understand that to be considered ‘successful,’ a prison must reduce recidivism;”
  • Provide prison educational programs that allow individuals to obtain a trade or vocation;
  • Males should be separated from females in prisons;
  • Encourage partnerships with local colleges and educational programs to allow incarcerated people to further their education during their incarceration;
  • Re-fund Pell grants for incarcerated people;
  • Strongly discourage the use of detention for immigration matters;
  • Phase out private prisons for immigration detention;
  • Ensure that detained persons have access to appropriate health, hygiene, and mental health services and products;
  • Mandate unannounced visits to prisons, jails, and other detention centers and allow selected civil society groups and United Nations special procedures and representatives to evaluate conditions;
  • Use “The most powerful incentive—earned time off one’s sentence—should be used to encourage participation in addiction treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, educational classes, faith-based programs, and other self-betterment activities prescribed in accordance with individualized case plans.”

Federal Communications Commission should regulate both voice call and video call industry, instituting rate caps on calls, prohibiting the use of either as a replacement for in-person visitation, requiring that calls be charged on a per minute basis, and developing minimum quality standards for calls.

Prison officials and the BOP should:

  • Adopt policies that affirmatively protect incarcerated people against sexual abuse in prison;
  • Eliminate prison practices that violate incarcerated people’ human rights, including the shackling of pregnant incarcerated people;
  • “Implement an actuarial risk and needs assessment tool, ensuring that the tool is used only to inform treatment, programming, and service-delivery decisions . . . develop case plans and deliver programming based on individual risk to reoffend, criminogenic needs, and other personal factors and characteristics that may influence the rehabilitative process . . . [and] conduct a system-wide assessment to identify surpluses and shortages in programming capacity at each facility.”
  • Comply with human rights standards for prison conditions that respect the culture, gender, hygiene, and sexuality of incarcerated individuals.

In addition, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women has identified several policy initiatives that Congress and state governments should take:

  • Gender specific programs informed by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and men;
  • Prohibition of the video taping of strip searches;
  • Ongoing and regular training of corrections officers and prison staff; and
  • Restoration of G.E.D. and Pell grants.

The Department of Justice should:

  • “[I]ssue a clarification through the Frequently Asked Questions section on the PREA Resource Center’s [which “aim[s] is to provide assistance to those responsible for state and local adult prisons and jails, juvenile facilities, community corrections, lockups, tribal organizations, and [incarcerated individuals} and their families in their efforts to eliminate sexual abuse in confinement”] website indicating that transgender people must be allowed to specify the gender of the officer they would prefer to be searched by in the event a search is legally justified and necessary.”
  • Aggressively pursue the enforcement of Prison Rape Elimination Act, for police holding cells.

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