Are Conclusions Pre-Ordained for Solitary Confinement Study?

One of the latest crusades of the Left is the abolition of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons. A coalition of 16 groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Amnesty International, are concerned that placing prisoners in isolation can lead to mental health issues and suicide attempts. Now these groups have prevailed upon the General Assembly to study the practice in the Old Dominion.

Legislation passed this session will require the Department of Corrections (DOC) to report data on the age, sex, race, ethnicity, mental health status, and security level of each inmate held in solitary confinement, along with the number of days spent there, and their disciplinary offense history. There has been a kerfluffle over the $2 million cost of collecting the data, according to The Virginia Mercury. DOC says it would have to hire 30 new employees to compile the data, most of which is kept in paper format. But there is a larger issue at stake.

The conclusions of the study are likely to be driven by the way the problem is framed, the questions asked, and the data collected. Call me a cynic, but here’s how I see this issue playing out: The study will show that certain groups (African-Americans and prisoners with mental health issues, most likely) are locked up in solitary confinement in numbers disproportionate to their prison population. Ergo, discrimination will be assumed, and curtailment of solitary confinement will become the latest rallying cry of the Social Justice movement.

There are two points worth keeping in mind as this controversy unfolds.

First, according to David C. Pyrooz and Meghan M. Mitchell writing in the Wall Street Journal today, gang affiliation is a major driver of placement in solitary confinement nationally. Gang members constitute only 15% of U.S. prisoners but 36% of inmates in solitary. Why would this be so? Because gang members tend to account for more organized violence within prisons. It’s not clear from the op-ed whether the national trends apply to Virginia. While there is some gang activity in Virginia, it is not as pronounced as in many other states. Be that as it may, if gang affiliation is a major factor nationally, it would make sense for DOC to collect that data as well.

But gang affiliation is not among the data points listed in the legislation.

Second, the focus is the well being of the prison inmates confined to solitary. What about the well being of the general inmate population? Presumably, the reason most inmates are isolated is that they constitute a threat to others. The legislation does require DOC to report “the disciplinary history preceding placement in restrictive housing.” But that wording is vague, certainly less specific than the legislation’s call for enumerating “age, sex, race, ethnicity, mental health code, medical class code, security level, and custody level classification.”

To get specific, the study should report the number of inmates held in solitary for reasons relating to acts of violence or threats of violence against guards or other inmates. Is that what we’ll get? Who knows. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but wonder why the data called for — “the disciplinary offense history” — doesn’t say so so explicitly.

The legislation also reflects a concern that restrictive housing is used to manage “vulnerable populations.” By “vulnerable,” the legislation refers to offenders who are at greater risk of victimization or bullying due to age, small stature, timid personality, or cognitive challenge. It does strike me as unfair that vulnerable inmates should suffer confinement due to the inability of the prison to protect them against other inmates. DOC should collect data to reveal how widespread the practice is… or isn’t.

I normally embrace the philosophy that more data is better. But I worry that this study might be cruising to pre-ordained conclusions. The validity of that fear depends largely upon who is charged with researching and writing it, and which outside groups, if any, are allowed to exercise influence on the project. One thing you can count on: The ACLU and Amnesty International will have more behind-the-scenes influence than the unorganized victims of criminal violence.