Letter from MarQui: January 2020

This is the ninth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

A couple days ago, another inmate in my housing unit got into a heated argument with a correctional officer. The officer threatened to put the inmate in solitary confinement for a couple weeks if he didn't shut up. The inmate, however, responded that he didn't care about going to the hole. "I'll just sleep those weeks off and be right back out here before you know it," he arrogantly retorted. That altercation, which happens several times a day every day in prison, shows not only how easy it is for offenders to get thrown in the hole by power stricken officers, but also the contemptuous apathy with which some offenders regard being punished with "hole time," and it may be a reflection of how they view being incarcerated in general. Just as I can say that the hole is terrible, and, after having experienced it, I never want to go back in there, I can also say that prison is terrible, and that after this experience is over, I will never be incarcerated again. Conversely, if the threat of being put in solitary confinement does NOT deter offenders from bad conduct in prison, maybe the threat of re-incarceration won't deter them from bad conduct when they're back in society.

Most offenders, including me, who have experienced solitary confinement, avoid it like the plague. We are respectful to the staff, follow the institutional rules, and spend our time productively working, taking educational classes, vocational trades, correspondence courses, and rehabilitative programs, reading, watching TV, listening to music, exercising, playing sports, attending religious services, etc. But there are also those offenders who, when given the choice to do right or wrong, are in the habit of choosing what's wrong, even when the consequence of those wrong choices is placement in solitary confinement. These offenders spend their time antagonizing the staff (and other offenders), gambling, stealing, fighting, gangbanging, avoiding school, buying and selling illegal drugs, getting drunk on prison wine, and violating other institutional policies. The threat of being locked in the hole means nothing to them, therefore, it has no bearing on their behavior.

 

These criminally inclined offenders, whom officers would rather keep locked in solitary confinement so they can't disrupt order and influence negative behavior in general population, are whom consequentialist legislators have in mind when they enact policies that keep offenders in prison longer to incapacitate them from breaking more laws in society. Every day, I see inmates shamelessly indulging in the same destructive behaviors that landed them in prison, as if they have no desire to better themselves. Some are candid about their plans to go right back to a criminal lifestyle upon their release from prison. Being around these individuals, I can't help but understand the rationale behind the aforementioned incapacitated criminal justice policies. It's not fair to the public when these offenders are released from prison only to wreak more havoc and endanger others. The problem is that the effects of such harsh policies extend far beyond those offenders, who represent only a fraction of the prison population, and deleteriously affect the productive offenders who would benefit from early release mechanisms such as parole (which is not available in Virginia) and executive clemency.

How offenders respond to solitary confinement - or the threat of it - may be indicative of their overall view of incarceration. This can be used to assess their individual risk of recidivism. Legislators can't predict which offenders are likely to re-offend and which of us only need one taste of incarceration to be deterred from crime, so, whether out of laziness, efficiency, personal bias, or a lack of understanding of - or a lack of empathy for - those who break the law, they enact "one size fits all" policies as if every offender responds to incarceration the same way. We don't. Just as experiencing solitary confinement once is enough of a "poor behavior" deterrent for some incarcerated individuals (and not others), penal confinement in itself will have differing levels of future crime deterrence on us. Understanding the psychology and behaviors of offenders is the key to a more individualistic criminal justice reform approach. A study on this topic may be a step in that direction.

 

Rabbi Feinberg’s Response

I really appreciate MarQui’s sending us his thoughts about how he has experienced solitary in a Virginia prison.  I am struck by how solitary is such a futile and pointless response to serious disturbed and destructive behaviors.  I can see how you might want to isolate a person acting out for a brief period of time just as a parent might send a misbehaving child to his or her room. Isolation, however, is not a way to treat serious behavioral problems.  There needs to be a diagnosis and a treatment plan for people acting out in a destructive way.  But our prisons are not set up to treat serious behavioral problems.  We need to end prolonged isolation and instead transfer funds used to isolate people into treating them psychologically, medically, and educationally.


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