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Solitary Confinement Revisited

The issue of solitary confinement remains controversial and relevant to our society. The following article describes the destructive impact of solitary confinement. Inmates in solitary confinement are at greater risk for suicide, have increased difficulties re-entering society, and substantially increases the cost of incarceration. The more the outside world knows about solitary confinement, the greater their understanding of what prison is like in certain circumstances such as protective custody or an inmate beyond any control, protective custody is a viable option. The problem lies when solitary confinement is the standard response to any prison problem. The following article confirms many opinions of solitary confinement.

By George F. Will of the Boston Herald

WASHINGTON — “Zero Dark Thirty,” a nominee for Sunday’s Oscar as Best Picture, reignited debate about whether the waterboarding of terrorism suspects was torture. This practice, which ended in 2003, was used on only three suspects. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Noting that half of all prison suicides are committed by prisoners held in isolation, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has prompted an independent assessment of solitary confinement in federal prisons. State prisons are equally vulnerable to Eighth Amendment challenges concerning whether inmates are subjected to “substantial risk of serious harm.”

America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration, which means a perpetual crisis of prisoners re-entering society, has generated understanding of solitary confinement’s consequences when used as a long-term condition for an estimated 25,000 inmates in federal and state supermaximum-security prisons — and perhaps 80,000 others in isolation sections within regular prisons. Clearly, solitary confinement involves much more than the isolation of incorrigibly violent individuals for the protection of other inmates or prison personnel.

Federal law on torture prohibits conduct “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” And “severe” physical pain is not limited to “excruciating or agonizing” pain, or pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death.” The severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.

Supermax prisons isolate inmates from social contact. Often prisoners are in their cells, sometimes smaller than 8 feet by 12 feet, 23 hours a day, released only for a shower or exercise in a small fenced-in outdoor space. Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds.

The first supermax began functioning in Marion, Ill., in 1983. By the beginning of this century there were more than 60 around the nation, and solitary-confinement facilities were in most maximum-security prisons. In an article (“Hellhole”) in the March 30, 2009, New Yorker, Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes on public health issues, noted, “One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction.” And those who are most incapacitated by solitary confinement are forced to remain in it because they have been rendered unfit for “the highly social world of mainline prison or free society.” Last year, The New York Times reported that of the prisoners sent to solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay prison because of gang affiliation, “248 have been there for 5 to 10 years; 218 for 10 to 20 years; and 90 for 20 years or more.”

Two centuries ago, solitary confinement was considered a humane reform, promoting reflection, repentance — penitence; hence penitentiaries — and rehabilitation. Quakerism influenced the design of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829 with a regime of strict solitude. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited it:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court said of solitary confinement essentially what Dickens had said: “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.” Americans should be roused against this by decency — and prudence.

Mass incarceration is expensive (California spends almost twice as much on prisons as on universities) and solitary confinement costs, on average, three times as much per inmate as in normal prisons. And remember, most persons now in solitary confinement will someday be back on America’s streets, many of them rendered psychotic by what are called correctional institutions.

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6 Responses to Solitary Confinement Revisited

  1. Phil Taaffe February 23, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Having been a serving Prison Officer of 25 years with the last 13 years of that service as a Senior Prison Officer during which one of my duties was setting up prisoner management routines including solitary confinement I do not disagree that possibly long term solitary confinement may affect the social aspect of a persons psyche. But I never see these so called “experts”trying to define the damage to the mind of a Prison Officer who has been assaulted by one of these long term solitary confinement prisoners or who have seen a friend badly assaulted. The grounds for these prisoners being so long in solitary confinement is never broadcast-ed. I can only say that the only long term solitary prisoner in Western Australia is in there because he can’t and doesn’t want to be a normal prisoner. He has taken 3 female staff members hostage and raped and sexually assaulted the three for long periods of time. Please explain to me how the prison authorities are supposed to deal with that given that they are also under pressure to provide safe working environments for their staff.

    • PrisonPath February 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Hi Phil,

      I do not disagree with you. As indicated in the article, certain inmates require solitary confinement because they are a danger to other inmates and the correctional officers. It is interesting that you mention that Australia has one inmate in long term solitary confinement because he is so dangerous. In the United States, there are thousands of inmates every day in solitary confinement. Note the end of this article, “How Many Prisoners Are in Solitary Confinement”, from Solitary Watch.

      “In our opinion, the most accurate possible description of how many prisoners are solitary confinement in the United States would go something like this: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.”

      The problem lies in the widespread use of solitary confinement for all types of situations.

  2. PrisonPath February 24, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    Solitary Confinement Revisited – PrisonPath

    Release Aging People from Prison Presentation and Discussion

    On Saturday, March 2, 2:00 – 4:00 pm, there will be a presentation and discussion of efforts to release aging people in prison in New York State. The Rev. Herbert Daughtry, minister of the church, has invited his congregation and the larger community to attend. Speakers will include Rev. Daughtry and Mujahid Farid, who served 33 years in prison in New York State and is currently court pens monitor at the Correctional Association of New York. Mr. Farid is also an initiator of the campaign to release aging people in prison.

    Prison justice advocates are warmly invited to attend.

    Location:House of the Lord Church, 415 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn

    “Release older incarcerated people who have served long periods of time — a group that has the lowest recidivism rates, meaning that they can be released without endangering public safety. The yearly cost to taxpayers of continuing to incarcerate one old person is as much as $200,000. A New York State study revealed that people released after serving long sentences for murder (mostly older individuals) had the lowest recidivism rate for committing a new offense, 1.3 percent — lower than any other category of those released. Between 2000 and 2011, the New York prison population 50 and older grew by 64 percent. Keeping these elders locked up until they die does nothing to enhance the security of our society. ”
    ~ from a NY Times letter to the Editor by Soffiyah Elijah, CEO, Correctional Association of NYPublished on: 11/ 22/2012
    By liz

  3. PrisonPath February 25, 2013 at 2:49 am #

    By Liz– I would like to inform those who would like to donate yarn and knitting needles to inmates. they would like to knit blankets,hats,booties, socks,etc to people in need like those affected by hurricane sandy,and elderly homes. the address to send them to is:
    P.O BOX 1000
    WOODBOURNE,N.Y 12788-1000


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