Is Solitary Confinement About to be Outlawed in the U.S.?

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By Joe Wright

Human rights activists have for decades been urging the U.S. government to prohibit the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment.

First, it is important to note that articles such as this one invariably elicit a fair amount of comments that say something to the effect of, “Hey, like we should care about hardened criminals … what about the people and families they have destroyed? Screw ’em, lock ’em up and throw away the key. Let ’em rot.” I’ll admit to having that visceral reaction myself when reading about some of the most sadistic crimes one can imagine perpetrated upon another human being. However, this is only a limited view of the entire situation.

The fact is that the U.S. prison system has transformed into a for-profit model which is leading to a greater number of non-violent (and innocent) people being locked up and subjected to this form of punishment. Worse still, the prison system mentality has trickled all the way down into general society where an increasing number of outrageous abuse cases are being reported among police, and even into our elementary schools.

Then there is the recent scientific verification that, yes, solitary confinement is torture.

The practice of solitary confinement as a punishment was actually created in the United States. In an interview with Angola 3 News, activists/journalists from Solitary Watch, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, trace this history of solitary confinement – or its euphemism Special Housing Unit:

… in the early 19th century in Philadelphia, as a supposedly humane alternative to things like floggings and hard labor … prisoners were locked up alone, with absolutely nothing to do but contemplate their crimes, pray, and supposedly become “penitent”—thus the term “penitentiary.” Of course, nothing like that happened. The U.S. Supreme Court looked at conditions in the Philadelphia prison in 1890 and found that “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”


For nearly 100 years after that, solitary confinement was rare; the famous Birdman of Alcatraz spent six years in solitary, and that was unusual. Things really began to change in 1983, when two guards at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, were killed by inmates on the same day. That was the beginning of the notorious Marion Lockdown, where prisoners were permanently confined to their cells without yard time, work, or any kind of rehabilitative programming.

This has led to such infamous cases of long-term confinement such as those at Pelican Bay prison where several inmates have been in solitary for up to 40 years. One of the men, Robert King, had his conviction overturned … but not after spending 29 years in solitary.

As Alex Pietrowski writes, the U.S. takes the lead in solitary confinement – paralleling its first position as having the largest prison population on earth despite having a small percent of the general population. This has led scientists finally to begin seriously questioning the widespread use and damaging effects:

According to the, there are over 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement as of 2005, enough to fill a good-size football stadium, and scientists recently convened to discuss the impact this practice has on human health:

As the number of prisoners in solitary has exploded, psychologists and neuroscientists have attempted to understand the ways in which a complete lack of human contact changes us over the long term. According to a panel of scientists that recently spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Chicago, research tells us that solitary is both ineffective as a rehabilitation technique and indelibly harmful to the mental health of those detained. [Source]

Based on this assessment, as well as a recent call by the American Public Health Association to end the practice, which is discussed in the video below, some states already have made reforms and others are expected to quickly follow suit.

Even for those who support the practice, there is a growing realization that the current numbers are significantly higher than warranted, and actually pose a danger to society when these mentally damaged prisoners are released – as 97% of them are.

If we are going to roundly condemn the horrific treatment of those who have fallen prey to the ever-widening War on Terror, including the taking of political prisoners, then we should at least be consistent about what we condone inside our own nation. And let’s not forget how torture is legally defined in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. [Source]

But the move to outlaw solitary confinement is not a battle only being fought in the legal realm. People of faith also have petitioned for the end to a practice which has come into direct conflict with their view of humanity and society. The text from one 2011 petition from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (comprised of 260 American religious organizations of varied belief systems) reads as follows:

Recognizing that prolonged solitary confinement can cause serious harm to prisoners, it has long been considered a form of torture. As a person of faith, I oppose the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

Experts estimate that at least 36,000 people in the U.S. criminal justice system are currently being held in solitary confinement. The vast majority of these inmates are detained in state prison facilities. Prisoners held in solitary confinement are often detained in a cell by themselves for 23 hours a day. Some prisoners are kept in these conditions for months, years, or even decades. Medical experts have stated that prisoners held in isolation for extended periods experience symptoms akin to delirium, and the impact on mentally ill prisoners is especially damaging. Alarmingly, these prisoners are sometimes released from solitary confinement units directly to their communities when they complete their prison sentence.

We need to invest in humane alternatives that address the mental health needs of prisoners in a way that effectively contributes both to their rehabilitation and to their successful transition back into society. Because holding prisoners in solitary confinement units is significantly more expensive than keeping them in the general prison population, instituting humane alternatives makes sense, both financially and morally.

We must end the use of prolonged solitary confinement in all 50 states and the federal prison system. It is costly, inhumane and ineffective; it harms prisoners and our communities. I call upon state legislators and departments of corrections to begin now to take steps to end prolonged solitary confinement.

Human rights activists, general people of faith and conscience, and science are now in agreement: solitary confinement should be severely scrutinized, if not fully eliminated, by any civilized society.

Legal reform has never been a more important first step as the United States finds itself being run by morally vacuous leaders and a legal system that continues to slide toward permitting acts of tyranny abroad and at home. In the current climate, even law-abiding citizens cannot be 100% sure that they will not find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The treatment we demand for others could very well be the treatment we receive ourselves.

Transcript with research links posted below:

by A.J. Feather

Could solitary confinement be headed for serious reform across the U.S.?

A movement to end the practice has gained traction recently. New York put reforms in place just two weeks ago to slow the practice of isolating vulnerable inmates, such as those who are pregnant or mentally ill. (Via The New York Times)

Maine, Connecticut, Illinois and several other states have also reformed their use of solitary in recent years. (Via NBC)

The practice came under increased scrutiny after the American Public Health Association called for the prohibition of solitary in November.

And, at a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said solitary was a “human rights issue we can’t ignore.” (Via MSNBC)

Earlier this month, the new head of Colorado’s corrections department stayed overnight in his state’s penitentiary to better understand the practice.

In an op-ed he wrote for The New York Times after his experience, he said he felt the need for reform more urgently than ever.

“If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use.  Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.” (Via The New York Times)

Robert King, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science at their annual meeting in Chicago in February to discuss how the practice affected him. King has had trouble with geographic orientation since he was released. (Via CNN)

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, said “You find that prisoners begin to develop identity disorders when they have spent long periods of time without social interaction or touch.”  He says that’s because so much of who we are is dependent on our contact with others.  So when others are removed, inmates “begin to lose their very sense of self.” (Via American Association for the Advancement of Science)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says one of the most concerning aspects of the practice is that it increased so heavily between the 1970s and 1990s as the United States saw a dramatic increase in prison population.  The group says the increase in solitary was due to overcrowding and under funding.  It had nothing to do with the practice being an effective correctional strategy. (Via National Alliance on Mental Illness)

There are an estimated 80,000 prisoners currently held in solitary confinement in the U.S.

Recently by Joe Wright: 


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