No one has documented the long-term psychological damage of incarceration in the United States more than UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney.
Haney, who holds psychology and law degrees, has spent his entire career watching prison populations grow while probing the psychology of imprisonment and the causes of violent crime. He has interviewed thousands of prisoners, many on death row or in solitary confinement in the nation’s growing stable of “supermax” prisons.
Since the “war on drugs” in the early 1970s, U.S. prison numbers grew to account for 25 percent of all the world’s prisoners even though it has only 5 percent of the world’s population.
For decades, Haney, who joined UC Santa Cruz in 1977, has warned that surging prison populations and deteriorating conditions are a dangerous combination. “We need to remember that the overwhelming majority of prisoners will be released one day,” he says. “It should matter to all of us what state of mind they are in when they rejoin free society.”
His research hasn’t been limited to scholarly papers in obscure journals. He testified before the U.S. Senate and the California Legislature. His testimony in a 1999 federal court case challenging the constitutionality of supermax conditions led to a landmark decision in Texas. Another landmark ruling, this time in California, ordered the state to drastically reduce its prison population. The United States Supreme Court cited Haney’s analysis and trial testimony in upholding the order.
He was named to a National Academy of Sciences panel of leading scholars and experts on corrections to study the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration in the United States. The panel’s report last year was a damning indictment of the growth of incarceration.
In recent years, policy makers have begun to take notice. In August 2013, reversing years of tough political rhetoric in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that levels of incarceration at federal, state and local levels had become both “ineffective and unsustainable.”
“We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer country,” he said.
Just last month, New York City officials said they would eliminate the use of solitary confinement for all inmates age 21 and younger at the notorious Rikers Island prison.