Hernandez has spent the last two weeks in “protective custody” at the Bristol County Jail in suburban Boston, where he will remain until his trial begins because he was denied bail at an arraignment hearing. He spends three hours a day outside his seven-by-ten foot cell, but he’s allowed no contact with the general prison population. He eats, showers, and even spends his hour each day in the yard by himself. He’s allowed one hour of visitation per week, though the jail won’t allow him to marry his fiance while he awaits trial. Law enforcement officials told TMZ that the arrangements were made for Hernandez’s safety because he is a high-profile prisoner: “The reason for this move is simply to protect him. We wouldn’t want some inmate trying to get any notoriety by attempting to harm Aaron Hernandez,” Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson said.
The ACLU, however, is concerned about the negative effects solitary confinement can have on prisoners, which studies have shown can have damaging and irreversible psychological effects.
“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,” the ACLU’s Hilary Krase and Sarah Solon wrote. “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.”
Football fans and the general public may already presume Hernandez’s guilt, but in the eyes of the law, he’s an innocent man until a prosecutor proves him guilty, which makes his presence in conditions resembling solitary confinement even worse. That doesn’t mean he should be granted bail, and his celebrity status may make him a special case. But there is surely middle ground between releasing him into the jail’s general population as a normal inmate and shutting him away into a cell “the size of a parking spot” in conditions that may have permanent negative psychological side-effects.
The issue, though, is larger than Aaron Hernandez. More than 80,000 people are kept in solitary confinement in American jails and prisons. Not all of them are violent criminals, or even adults. Solitary confinement is used on juveniles as young as age 13 who are in custody for offenses as minor as drug possession. Many have no visitation rights or have little contact with the outside world.
The effects are damning. An American hostage held in solitary confinement in a Lebanese prison “felt himself disintegrating…as if his brain were grinding down,” he told the New Yorker. “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” Sen. John McCain, who spent 15 years as a prisoner of war, has written. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” When the New Yorker spoke to an inmate in solitary confinement in an American prison, it found that “his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end.” Inmates in solitary confinement, according to psychological studies, suffer from social intimacy issues and irrational anger. Those subjected to it face longer odds of rehabilitation. Those released after spending time in solitary face higher rates of recidivism.
United Nations officials have likened use of solitary confinement to torture, a federal court has ruled that its use for mentally ill patients is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and an American hiker said solitary confinement conditions at a California prison were worse than he experienced while held hostage in Iran. In February, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that it was putting the use of solitary confinement under review. In the meantime, American prisoners continue to sit alone. Monday, an estimated 30,000 inmates at California’s Pelican Bay Prison launched a hunger strike against long-term solitary confinement. They would rather not eat than sit alone in the cells any longer.
By speaking out for Hernandez, the ACLU is hoping to draw more attention to the problems of solitary confinement that affect thousands of other prisoners. “It is time to recognize that ‘protective custody’ is a misnomer for a destructive practice,” Krase and Solon wrote. “If nothing else, maybe all the press attention Hernandez’s case is getting will help debunk the myth of ‘protective’ solitary confinement.”