Aaron Hernandez Is the Face of Solitary Confinement

The former Patriot puts a famous face on an issue that's already up for debate.

Aaron Hernandez

Image Credit: Associated Press

When authorities moved Aaron Hernandez into solitary confinement, they put a very famous face on an issue that’s already a topic of debate in Massachusetts this year.

Last week, Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson told TMZ that authorities had put the former Patriots tight end into isolation while he awaits his murder trial for his own protection. “We wouldn’t want some inmate trying to get any notoriety by attempting to harm Aaron Hernandez,” Hodgson said. Hernandez is allowed outside his cell for three hours a day, during which time he has access to a phone, a yard, and a common room.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union protested Hernandez’s confinement:

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. 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.

In fact, Hernandez’s case comes at a particularly relevant time for the Commonwealth. As Jean Trounstine wrote for Boston last week, legislators are currently examining proposed changes to Massachusetts’ use of solitary confinement which is, by some measures, among the most severe in the nation. Sen. James Eldrige and Rep. Elizabeth Malia have written a bill that focuses on reigning in the use of disciplinary segregation, providing a 15 day limit after which the prison would have to demonstrate why his continued solitary confinement was necessary.  Other states have taken measures in recent years to reduce the percentage of their prison populations in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts bill is opposed  by Luis S. Spencer, the state commissioner of correction, who maintains that solitary is a necessary tool.

Hernandez’s case stands slightly apart from that debate, because he’s being isolated not as a disciplinary measure but due to his celebrity and for his safety. That’s a very common justification for solitary confinement in American prisons, and one opponents of the practice resist just as strongly. As the ACLU wrote of Hernandez:

Prison officials sometimes justify solitary confinement as necessary to separate vulnerable prisoners, such as juveniles and the elderly, or high-profile prisoners, like Hernandez, from the general population. But this “protection” comes at an unnecessarily high cost.

The ACLU points to studies that have shown the psychological harm solitary confinement can have.

Extreme isolation can have debilitating psychological effects. Prisoners locked alone in solitary confinement may become depressed or begin hallucinating. Psychologists have said that the effects of prolonged solitary confinement can be irreversible, and an emerging international community has begun to condemn solitary confinement.

In November, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court affirmed that solitary confinement, even when it’s “administrative” and not disciplinary, constitutes a punishment that must be countered with legal protections for the prisoner. Hernandez is obviously an odd face for solitary’s opponents in that he’s not a particularly sympathetic figure in the public eye, though he has yet to stand trial.  But with over 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in American prisons according to the ACLU, it takes a lot for a single prisoner’s day-to-day conditions to attract broad public attention to the issue. So sympathetic or not, he’s certainly thrust the debate further into the public eye.