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The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Our country’s founders believed punishment for criminal offenses, out of line with the offense, should be prohibited. 

The Eighth Amendment has been subject to numerous interpretations since its ratification, with practices such as the death penalty or excessive sentences for individuals possessing crack cocaine as legal even though they view those punishments as being extreme. 

Lately, many scholars and criminal justice and political activists are pointing out that solitary confinement — a form of punishment in which an incarcerated person lives in a single cell with little or no contact with other people — as cruel and unusual punishment. 

Solitary confinement is legal in the District of Columbia jail and there is a call for it to end. 

D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) has authored a bill, ERASE (Eliminating Restrictive and Segregated Enclosures) Solitary Confinement Act of 2023, banning all forms of solitary confinement. 

Nadeau’s bill would ban administrative segregation as in when residents are moved for safety reasons to reduce conflicts, as well as utilizing solitary confinement to separate transgender and other unsafe residents. Her bill would allow exemptions for short-term suicide prevention or medical isolation. 

Mary Cheh, when she represented Ward 3 on the council, attempted to have a solitary confinement ban bill passed but it never made it past a public hearing. Nadeau has noticed Cheh’s legislative intent and rightly so.

The purpose of incarceration is to punish an individual for a crime or transgression committed. Incarceration is also supposed to be designed to correct an individual’s attitude and behavior so that they will become a more productive member of society. 

Solitary confinement, sometimes used for purposes by correctional officials other than rehabilitation, has yet to be widely accepted as a form of punishment to improve behavior. Indeed, studies have shown that solitary confinement often increases an individual’s antisocial behavior. 

The D.C. Council and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser should do the right thing and pass Nadeau’s bill and put the city in line with the true intent and spirit of the Eighth Amendment.

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