Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to be in prison. Since the probability for most of us is that it will never happen to us or to anyone we are close to, it just doesn’t present much of a concern. Over the past several years, though, I have become more and more aware of how unusually harsh our prison system is, and that we imprison a much higher percentage of our population than any other industrialized nation.

Over the past few weeks, I have given our prison system a lot of thought, ever since I became aware that it is not unusual to keep young people in our prisons in solitary confinement for long periods of time — ever since I saw something on television I would like to share with you.

On March 22, NBC News showed an eye-opening documentary about a young man named Kevin, a juvenile who was 13 when he was tried and sentenced as an adult.

Kevin, who was diagnosed as bipolar at age 11, had been tricked into taking a BB gun into a store to commit armed robbery. He didn’t shoot anyone, and he didn’t take any money. He panicked and fled. Within minutes he was caught and thrown to the ground by a police officer who had a gun to his head. You might think Kevin’s mental illness and this crime were a cry for help that would have led people to put him in a facility where he could get care for his illness. Nothing like that happened — quite the contrary. He was sent to a juvenile prison facility after sentencing.

The TV report showed how difficult Kevin was to manage, how he acted out in wildly manic ways and had to be subdued while in a juvenile facility, so he was sent to an adult facility at age 15. Because he was hard to control, and because it was dangerous for him to be put in the general population of the adult facility, he was kept in solitary confinement for the five years he remained in prison. Kevin began to try to hurt himself by bashing his head against the wall, and on a couple of occasions he was stripped to his shorts and hog-tied to prevent his suicidal behavior. This means his wrists were chained behind his back to his ankles so he couldn’t easily move about, and they put a helmet on his head so he couldn’t bash his brains out. He was restrained like this in solitary for up to 12 hours at a time.

It is not an uncommon event for children who are tried as adults and sentenced to adult prisons to be put in solitary confinement, but the numbers are rarely published (the estimate on the show was that 100,000 young people every year are housed this way). They are considered unfit company for other juveniles, but they can’t safely be held in adult prisons without being victimized in some horrific way by the adult population, so they are kept in isolation.

If you have any romantic notions of isolation not being such a bad thing, consider how it’s done. These kids are not kept in a room by themselves and allowed normal breaks to go outside and exercise, and usually they aren’t allowed to have books or anything else in their cells to alleviate the boredom. They are left in a tiny space by themselves for 23 hours a day, with one hour of “outside” time in order to walk around by themselves in a small cage.

Kevin described his confinement as being like that, except on weekends he didn’t even get the hour out of confinement because there weren’t enough people on staff to supervise him. What’s a person to do for 23 hours without any form of mental or social stimulation? A person becomes mentally unbalanced, maybe even psychotic. That’s the normal outcome for people who are isolated for long periods of time. Solitary confinement is a form of torture that was used during the Korean War on American prisoners. It very effectively left the prisoners in a mentally unbalanced state, making them more likely to be cooperative and easily “brainwashed.”

The practice of solitary confinement in this country began very early in our history. ”The United States was actually the world leader in introducing prolonged incarceration, and solitary confinement, as a means of dealing with criminal behavior,” according to Stuart Grassian. “The ‘penitentiary system’ began in the United States, first in Philadelphia, in the early nineteenth century, a product of a spirit of great social optimism about the possibility of rehabilitation of individuals with socially deviant behavior. The Americans were quite proud of their ‘penitentiary system’ and they invited and encouraged important visitors from abroad to observe them.

“This system originally labeled as the ‘Philadelphia System’ involved almost an exclusive reliance upon solitary confinement as a means of incarceration and also became the predominant mode of incarceration, both for post-conviction and also for pretrial detainees, in the several European prison systems which emulated the American model. The results were, in fact, catastrophic. The incidence of mental disturbances among prisoners so detained, and the severity of such disturbances, was so great that the system fell into disfavor and was ultimately abandoned. During this process a major body of clinical literature developed which documented the psychiatric disturbances created by such stringent conditions of confinement.”

The effects of solitary confinement are especially acute for juveniles. When a person is in his or her teens, the brain isn’t even fully formed yet. Being in solitary confinement is a very traumatic experience and can definitely limit any possibility of normal growth or rehabilitation for youngsters subjected to it. Solitary confinement can also exacerbate any mental illness an individual might have.

According to the MIT Young Adult Development Project: “’’The solitary confinement of young people … is itself a serious human rights violation and can constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under human rights international law,’ the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. ‘Conditions that compound the harm of solitary confinement, such as the denial of educational programming, exercise or family visits, often constitute independent, serious human rights violations.’”

In addition to being harmful to the individuals subjected to it, solitary confinement is expensive. The human toll on individuals incarcerated and on their families and the communities they are released into is immeasurable. But the costs of housing individuals in this kind of confinement are not. And since the recession began, states are taking a hard look at the real financial costs and making some changes. Mississippi, Colorado and Maine have made reductions in the number of inmates in solitary.

Our argument against this form of imprisonment as thinking, caring individuals of faith has to be based on moral grounds. As more individuals who have suffered this kind of treatment speak out (like Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer who were subjected to solitary confinement in Iran), and as psychologists and journalists weigh in, there is an increasing awareness of the harmfulness of the brutal practice. If we acknowledge that this is indeed inhumane treatment, we have a responsibility to speak out against it as well and do what we can to eliminate it.

There are many ways to do that. Right now there is a bill before the California Senate, Senate Bill 61 introduced by Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, that would effectively ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles over long periods of time as well as put safeguards in place for the limited use of the practice. As a California resident, you could write to Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson in support of the bill.

At the national level, you could also lobby our senators and representatives to sponsor and support legislation eliminating the use of solitary confinement in our prisons (in addition to the many other reforms that are needed to our penal code). You could also add you signature to an open letter from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the ACLU to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. Finally, you could make others aware of this arcane and brutal practice. As awareness grows, sanity and compassion could prevail.

— Lynn Kienzel is a member of the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns.