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Column Prisoners - pity about them?

This week,’s regular columnist Lisa McInerney says rehabilitation and dignity for prisoners isn’t an issue for bleeding heart lefties: it’s for our own protection when they get out.

“THE MIND IS a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”

The journalist Terry Anderson in his memoir Den Of Lions, after his first month in solitary confinement as a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If there’s one thing the Irish don’t like, it’s a complaint where the blame lies with the complainer. Had too much to drink and got arrested break-dancing on the road at half three in the morning? Pity about you! Got caught with a kilo of cocaine and now have to slop-out your cell? Pity about you!

The slopping-out debate/debacle in Irish prisons is going on still, with any reference to the prisoner’s dignity prompting howls of derision you could hear from space. In comparison to whatever misdeed landed the prisoner inside, the embarrassment of having to empty their waste buckets is a brief inconvenience; Ireland doesn’t think much of complaints put forward by her ne’er-do-wells. There is no Charter Of Rights for Irish prisoners.

Last week, the United Nations’ investigator on torture, Juan Mendez, called for the end of solitary confinement in prisons. The first question from many of us wasn’t how solitary confinement was ever thought an appropriate method of punishment; it was why Mendez was bothering to advocate its end.

I followed the debate on Twitter and on comments boards, and what surprised me most was that many Irish people seemed unaware that the Irish penal system has provisions for, but generally doesn’t use, solitary confinement as a method of punishment or control. Pity about them! was flung about a lot, and always by people who hadn’t bothered to check whether what they were advocating even applies here.

It’s understandable that any inquiry into the comfort of prisoners provokes heated debate

When you read about a crime, you sympathise with the victim, not with the perpetrator; that’s the correct reaction, and if your own doesn’t match, you should proceed to the nearest mirror and punch it to shards. So it’s understandable that any inquiry into the comfort of prisoners provokes heated debate.

After all, criminals prey on the vulnerable in order to line their own pockets or sate their own desires. What good does it do to look after those who have so little interest in contributing to society? Prison isn’t supposed to be a holiday! cry the law-abiding. Prison is a punishment, and the punished don’t get to dictate the terms.

It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.

Prison should be one part punishment, infinite parts rehabilitation. This is not some sort of bleeding heart plea; unless all prison sentences are of the lock-the-door-and-throw-away-the-key variety, the prisoner is going to get out some time, and when they do, it should be in a state in which they can slip back into society and start functioning as the rest of us do. Not because they deserve a second chance (whether or not you think they do is your own philosophy), but because the innocent deserve protection from the harm that one broken individual can do.

In many cases, the victim of the original crime doesn’t get a second chance, and that’s a searing, terrible truth, but we can’t correct the tragedies of the past by refusing to attempt rehabilitation of the perpetrator. Prison shouldn’t be solely about punishment; it should be a safe place in which to keep dangerous people away from society until such time as they are fit to return. An impossible task, in some cases, but that’s a searing, terrible truth, too. It’s still a task that’s got to be attempted.

So why not solitary confinement? It sounds like a walk in the park to many of us; if we ended up in prison, we think, we’d seize any chance to cower from the teeming hordes. In reality, solitary confinement is profoundly cruel, and so counterproductive a punishment, it might well be a punchline to a very sick joke.

Without human interaction, the mind breaks. Depression, lethargy, loss of emotional control, hallucination, panic attacks, irrational anger, intense revenge fantasies, permanent changes to brain physiology, even lapsing into catatonic states are all well-documented effects of solitary confinement.

These problems don’t just go away when the prisoner is released. In order to effectively function in society after a period of solitary confinement, the subject would need extensive counselling, monitoring, mentoring and support, the cost of which would far outweigh any purported benefit in committing the offenders to solitary in the first place. We must not subject prisoners to the kind of treatment that breaks them without being willing, and more importantly able, to fix them again afterwards.

Solitary confinement as a punishment is not prevalent in Ireland, at least, not in comparison to the terrifying mess it’s created in the US. Where a prisoner is denied association with other prisoners due to his or her conduct, Irish prison rules state that such exclusion cannot continue for longer than is necessary to ensure the maintenance of secure custody. Confining a prisoner to a special observation cell, or “strip cell”, is chiefly used when the prisoner is suicidal, and prison rules state that this period should not exceed 24 hours, except in extreme circumstances and only then after consultation with a doctor.

The only thing we achieve by mistreating prisoners is a reinforcement of the notion that they are outside of society and are subject to neither its rights nor its rules.

Of course, reality doesn’t always correspond; a significant number of prisoners who end up in strip-cells have existing mental health problems, and solitary confinement doesn’t alleviate these; it makes them worse. Still, what’s interesting here is that Ireland’s prison rules are more humane than many Irish people know … or want them to be.

Whether or not the case against solitary confinement applies to the Irish penal system, there is a huge difference between having to empty a chamber pot (which is more down to the age of Ireland’s prison buildings than it is to inventive punishment) and being denied the most basic of human needs. Solitary confinement cannot be dismissed with the same argument as slopping-out, that the prisoner put him or herself into that situation and must then deal with the uncomfortable consequences. It would be like removing someone’s legs and asking them to tie their shoes; not only cruel, but reflective of your own worst prejudices, and ludicrously futile.

To mistreat a prisoner with the philosophy that they must suffer the same indignities as their victims sounds logical, and it might very well be, if the prisoners involved had superhuman powers of self-assessment and masochistic consciences. Otherwise, the only thing we achieve by mistreating prisoners is a reinforcement of the notion that they are outside of society and are subject to neither its rights nor its rules. Without rehabilitation, you deepen the chip on the prisoner’s shoulder. Without re-education, you leave them without the tools to change their trajectories.

Without human interaction, you might as well leave them for dead. Pity about them? No. Pity us.

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