July 5, 2022


Hope For an End to Solitary Confinement

By: Emily Schroen

A Texas man has been in solitary confinement for almost 27 years.

Dennis Hope committed a series of armed robberies in 1990 and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. He managed to escape twice, once from a maximum security facility, and was placed into solitary confinement in 1994. He was only transferred out of restrictive housing this past February.

Mr. Hope is appealing his prolonged isolation in a maximum security prison in Texas. The appellate court’s claim that Hope cannot show “ causation or harm” from his 27 year solitary confinement is ludicrous. Prolonged solitary confinement violates the eighth amendment forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the Supreme Court needs to confirm that.

In the upcoming Supreme Court case, Hope v. Harris, the court will decide if decades of solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that this standard can be applied to prisoners, but no court has ever found that solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment.

The undue physical and mental toll on Mr. Hope highlights the cruel nature of his imprisonment.

His room was smaller than a compact parking space. He was there for 23 hours a day, leaving only one hour a day to exercise by himself in an enclosed space. His knees and back have deteriorated from pacing his cell. His eyesight, vocal chords, and concentration have all diminished from lack of stimulation. The mental toll has included extreme anxiety, depression, hallucinations, and thougths of suicide. He has seen others in his predicament mutilate or kill themselves. 

The general professional and psychological consensus is that solitary confinement can lead to “serious and lasting psychological damage,” not to mention neurological degeneration and premature death. The United Nations says that “prolonged” solitary confinement of more than fifteen days amounts to torture. Hope’s own psychiatrist told him, “you’re doing a lot better than I would be doing.” 

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor has also attested to the “clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners… in near-total isolation.” She even called solitary confinement a “penal tomb,” maybe indicating she will rule favorably in Mr. Hope’s case. Former Justices Kennedy and Breyer were also critical of the practice, but so far no court has found that solitary confinement can violate the Eighth Amendment. 

The eighth amendment doesn’t guarantee inmates won’t suffer some psychological effects from incarceration or segregation. However, Hope’s experience is unusual even in the United States Prison system.

Excluding inmates on death row, there are 500 people in Texas who have been in solitary confinement for more than 10 years and 138 who have served for more than 20. Compare that to the rest of the United States, where only 12 inmates have served more than 20 years in solitary. 

Even historically, such prolonged solitary confinement is strange. The framers of the constitution were unaware of the practice, and after the nation experimented with it in the 19th century, it was rejected for cruelty. It only reemerged in the late 20th century, so even the originalist justices have an argument for its removal.

It is hard to believe that the appellate court can’t make a causative connection between Hope’s symptoms and his decades long isolation. True, Hope could be a difficult prisoner to deal with. His escapes could have warranted his initial solitary treatment while the prison adjusted. He definitely deserves to pay for his violent crimes, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be tortured. 

The Supreme Court has vowed to rule according to the “evolving standards of decency” that mark a healthy society, and it needs to do so in this case. If we are a nation that believes in justice, that justice must extend even to those at the fringes of society.