The importance of pursuing rehabilitative justice over punitive justice has long been a talking point of left-wing groups and individuals in the United States political sphere. For good reason, too – according to the 13th World Prison Population List, the U.S. still has an incarceration rate unmatched by comparable nations. Clocking in at 629 prisoners per 100,000 people, it outranks its neighbors (Canada at 104, Mexico at 169), its allies (Germany at 70, Portugal at 113, Israel at 234 and Saudi Arabia at 207, to name a few) and even nations that lack stable democracy or democracy at all (Libya at 139, Iran at 228). Clearly, as a country of near-unmatched incarceration, it's no wonder the type of justice we pursue is such a hot-button issue.
Perhaps one of the easiest examples of a figurehead for this discussion in recent times has been the death penalty's role in dealing with criminals. The answer is obvious and resounding disapproval for those in favor of rehabilitative justice: It's impossible to rehabilitate someone that the state has killed.
Beyond that, inhumane police actions, such as the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the conditions of prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lasting impacts of the drug war – especially as they pertain to the often-intersectional incarceration of people of color and those below the poverty line – have shed light on the issues that advocates of rehabilitative justice protest.
With such overwhelming evidence of critiques to make of the U.S. justice system, it can be easy to let some of the more obscured and less-mentioned damage go unnoticed. For instance, it's simple to point to figureheads like the death penalty while failing to put the conditions of those who live through the greatest depths of our prison system in the limelight.
At no place do these horrific conditions come to bear on inmates so harshly as the single remaining supermax prison in the U.S. federal prison system, ADX Florence. Copious security measures, surveillance systems and anti-suicide measures are present in every step of prisoners' lives at ADX Florence. The cells, a mere 10-by-12-foot usable space, as described by an inmate, are made nearly entirely of solid steel and concrete. The only sight of the outside world prisoners have is a four-inch-by-four-foot window designed to keep inmates from knowing their location within the building. On top of that, inmates are rarely provided with human interaction and spend at least 22 hours a day within their cells.
These conditions are kept despite large amounts of data from the Prison Policy Initiative showing an array of negative side effects resulting from solitary confinement ranging from increased risk of overdose or suicide, to shortened lifespans, to the development of disorders, to permanent brain damage and more.
Off the bat, these prisoners are easy to dismiss – among the individuals held at ADX Florence are those who murdered correctional officers or other inmates in lower prisons or performed terrorist acts. Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, is one of the prison's inmates. Despite the violent crimes committed by these individuals, however, it's important to call these conditions what they are: inhumane, even for people of that caliber.
What may be even more disturbing, however, is the fact that solitary confinement isn't limited to people of the caliber of supermax prisons. Data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, updated Sept. 16, 2022, tells us that a much more frightening number: 10,412 federal prisoners are held within "special housing units" alone. This holding method entails at least some form of social isolation or solitary confinement.
Although there are clearly other fights to be fought on the front of rehabilitative justice, there should be no question that solitary confinement is unacceptable and must be on the chopping block if we ever hope to achieve a truly rehabilitative system.