Following his well-publicized arrest, former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez is now living in a much less public place. Hernandez was recently placed into "protective custody" —one of the many names for solitary confinement.
Regardless of what you think of Aaron Hernandez, it's important to take a minute and remember he has not yet been convicted — in the eyes of the law, he is still innocent until proven guilty. But, while awaiting trial, he has been locked alone in a small room with little or no human interaction for over 20 hours a day.
Extreme isolation can have debilitating psychological effects. Prisoners locked alone in solitary confinement may become depressed or begin hallucinating. Psychologists have said that the effects of prolonged solitary confinement can be irreversible, and an emerging international community has begun to condemn solitary confinement. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has said that solitary confinement can amount to torture, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment found that solitary confinement conditions can amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Sadly, what's happening to Hernandez is not a rarity in our criminal justice system. There are more than 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement across the country. They remain isolated for weeks and sometimes years on end, often without the press attention Hernandez's case has gotten.
Prison officials sometimes justify solitary confinement as necessary to separate vulnerable prisoners, such as juveniles and the elderly, or high-profile prisoners, like Hernandez, from the general population. But this "protection" comes at an unnecessarily high cost. Isolation is particularly devastating for vulnerable populations — for kids, isolation can cause severe psychological and physical harm and negatively impact social and development growth. The harms of protective custody are so well known that the Prison Rape Elimination Act regulations that the Department of Justice requires mandate that adult facilities make their "best efforts" to avoid placing youthful detainees in isolation. And, for the cognitively disabled or those with severe mental illness — who frequently make up the majority of those living in solitary confinement — extreme isolation can exacerbate their condition and can result in significant deterioration.
It is time to recognize that "protective custody" is a misnomer for a destructive practice. It does little to protect prisoners from the devastating psychological effects of isolation. It drastically diminishes chances for rehabilitation. And according to some studies, prisoners released directly from supermax confinement have significantly higher recidivism rates.
If nothing else, maybe all the press attention Hernandez's case is getting will help debunk the myth of "protective" solitary confinement.