System of solitary confinement not a solution
Two days after 28-year-old parolee Evan Spencer Ebel was killed in a shootout with police, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper went on TV and said, “I felt like I was caught in a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. All these things were happening to people that I loved. And they didn’t seem to be connected in any way.”
Hickenlooper, who just recently signed some of the nation’s toughest gun legislation, is a longtime friend of both Ebel’s father, Jack Ebel, and Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements — the man whom Ebel is suspected of murdering.
On March 19, around 8:30pm, Clements went to answer the door at his home in Monument, Colorado Springs, and was shot in the chest. Two days later, police in Texas shot and killed a man driving a black Cadillac with Colorado license plates who had fired at them during a traffic stop — Evan Ebel.
After a car chase that reached speeds of 100mph, Ebel’s Cadillac was smashed by an 18-wheeler. Ebel emerged from the car with a gun and fired several rounds at officers before being killed by return fire. Authorities are now investigating a link between Ebel and Clements’ murder, as well as Ebel’s possible ties to a white supremacist prison gang called the 211s. He is also suspected in the murder of a 27-year-old pizza deliveryman, Nathan Leon.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Hickenlooper recalled that Ebel had always been mentally unstable. “From the beginning [Jack’s] son just seemed to have this bad streak, this streak of cruelty and anger,” he said. “And yet, they did everything they could. They worked with Evan again and again, but to no avail. He had a bad, bad streak.”
Ebel, who spent much of his young life in prison, was convicted at age 19 for involvement in a robbery. A year later he was convicted again and sentenced to eight years in prison. He spent several years of his incarceration in solitary confinement.
Whatever his level of involvement with Clements’ murder was, people close to Ebel are convinced that his time in solitary confinement had a profound effect on his psyche. His father even asked the Colorado State Legislature to consider alternatives for the mentally ill, since he felt that Evan’s time locked up had caused severe damage. Ebel’s attorney saw its effects as well: “In my 38 years of being a lawyer, I’ve never had anyone go so wrong,” he said.
Studies have shown that drastic restriction of environmental and social stimulation can permanently harm a person’s mental functioning, and they’ve prompted a public backlash against the use of punitive isolation. In December of 2012, The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against New York State’s use of solitary confinement. Their executive director, Donna Lieberman, said, “New York’s prison authorities permit the use of extreme isolation — one of the harshest punishments one human can impose on another — as a disciplinary tool of first resort for violating almost any prison rule, no matter how minor.” Lieberman went on to claim that solitary confinement makes prisons and communities alike less safe.
Ironically, solitary confinement is often used in U.S. prisons with the intention of protecting younger inmates. Juveniles who are kept in adult prisons are sometimes placed in solitary confinement, where older inmates can’t get to them. But as NBC recently reported, 90 percent of those juveniles are not in prison for violent crimes, such as rape and murder, and the overwhelming majority of them will eventually be released.
Cases like Ebel’s invite us to think about what our prison system is really for. It’s tempting to believe that prisons exist to punish criminals — that they’re about dealing out justice, providing closure for victims and giving others added incentive to follow the law. But the reality Ebel reminds us of is that most criminals who go to prison don’t stay in prison — they return to civil society with drastically reduced opportunities and whatever they took away from their time behind bars, which is often little more than psychological damage and years’ worth of pent-up aggression. Solitary confinement only exacerbates this problem.
But prisons can also be a place to rehabilitate criminals — to try to correct the behavioral flaws that lead to consistent crime. Even if some criminals are beyond help, eliminating harmful practices like solitary confinement could reduce the number of repeat offenses and senselessly violent crimes.
For the past couple of years, the news has been littered with cases of violent, mentally unstable young men who commit horrible crimes: TJ Lane, Adam Lanza, James Holmes. Whether or not Ebel is responsible for Clements’ death, and whether or not solitary confinement exacerbated his behavior, it would make a lot of sense to start paying more attention to how we treat — and possibly even produce — repeat violent offenders.
David Andersen is a junior writing major who believes in rehabilitation over re-incarceration. Email him at danders2[at]ithaca[dot]edu.