Shawn Minnich, now 48, went from a fairly normal life as a young man in Fayetteville — high school ROTC, college, husband and father — to admittedly self-inflicted trouble, serious trouble. He had sex with a minor, and then fought with a deputy trying to arrest him, stealing the officer’s gun and fleeing. After surrender, he got 31 years in prison.
His crimes were serious, to be sure, and Minnich earned his prison time. But he now says he’s been in solitary confinement for 13 straight years, a punishment that many prison officials and certainly a host of psychiatrists say is devastating and inhumane. Prisoners in such circumstances do harm to themselves; they certainly don’t experience much rehabilitation. They commit more infractions that get them more time and in too many cases, more solitary confinement.
Minnich wrote The Charlotte Observer about his situation. An earlier Observer story on another inmate in long-term solitary, which amounts to almost complete isolation in a tiny cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, resulted in the man visiting with his mother for the first time in years.
Much research has been done on the effects of solitary, and the findings are frustrating indeed. That kind of prolonged isolation can exacerbate mental problems in inmates who are in solitary because they have a psychiatric condition. They harm themselves, and then they attack guards or commit other offenses, and they’re isolated — prison officials in some cases say to protect other inmates — for longer periods of time.
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Many states, and North Carolina is one of them, recognize the problems with solitary confinement and are trying to address them. This state has cut the percentage of inmates in solitary confinement from 12.5 percent to 6 percent in the last two years.
That’s good, and it shows that officials recognize that this punishment has little value, if any at all.
But there are too many cases of long-term solitary punishment. And there is way too little information on who those prisoners are and how many of them there are.
Many of these inmates may one day have served their sentences and be released. At that point, they’ll be woefully unprepared to rejoin “society.” They may even, with worsened mental problems exacerbated by prison and solitary, be a danger to their own families.
And this is only magnified by the fact that recidivism is too frequent even among those in the general prison population.
Reducing solitary confinement isn’t just about human treatment, though that’s the first concern. It is also about protecting everyone, now, in prisons, and later, when these inmates are released. The state must address this issue with urgency.