Another Perspective

Cruel and Usual Punishment

Solitary confinement is literally dehumanizing.

By 5.8.14

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Feces and blood. Those are the images that have stayed with me since I watched Solitary Nation, part one of a PBS documentary series that debuted in late April called Locked Up in America.

It offers a glimpse of life for inmates in solitary confinement at a supermax prison in Maine.

In the process of descending into madness, many prisoners in solitary confinement—some barely out of their teens—act out. They shove feces under their doors or smear it on themselves or the tiny windows of their cells.

Or they cut themselves with smuggled razor blades. They do it to protest prison conditions, out of boredom, in hopes of getting transferred to the slightly-less-restrictive psych ward, in actual suicide attempts or for some combination of those reasons.

A prison cleaning-crew employee jokes that he has become something of a blood specialist and reports that he averages twenty blood clean-ups a month. The self-abuse inevitably leads to more time in isolation. It is difficult to watch Solitary Nation and not conclude “There’s gotta be a better way.”

An estimated 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement across the country. According to the American Friends Service Committee, forty-four states have supermax facilities, which are specifically designed for mass solitary confinement.

Short-term isolation may be an effective way to deal with prisoners who are a menace to prison guards and their fellow inmates. But solitary is more often used for the long-term warehousing of nonviolent inmates.

At California’s infamous Pelican Bay State Prison, prisoners spend an average of more than seven years in solitary. In 2011, the New York Times reported that 218 Pelican Bay inmates had been in solitary confinement for ten to twenty years and ninety for more than twenty years.

Inmates are often thrown into solitary for nonviolent breaches of prison rules. Many of them suffer from mental illness. A study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 45 percent of supermax residents have “serious mental illness, marked by symptoms or psychological breakdowns.”

If prisoners don’t have psychological problems going into prison, it’s likely they will have them once they leave. Inmates typically spend twenty-three hours a day in tiny windowless cells, their sole reprieve an hour a day spent in an outdoor area that resembles a dog pen. Many get almost no human contact, even with guards.

Unlike other prisoners, inmates housed in solitary confinement are usually given no work and have no access to drug treatment programs or religious services. They get no phone calls except in emergencies and no contact visits. In some cases, they aren’t allowed clocks, photos, food condiments, playing cards or more than one book at a time.

It can cost nearly $100,000 a year to house an inmate in solitary confinement. But the human costs are much higher.

After a month in solitary, Terry Anderson, an American reporter held hostage by Hezbollah terrorists in 1985, thought, “My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.” He later wrote, “I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all.”

Senator John McCain, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, wrote that solitary “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

In 2012, Congress held its first ever hearing on the use of solitary confinement. In oral testimony, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said that for many inmates solitary confinement “precipitates a descent into madness.” Or as one teenage inmate put it about his experience in isolation, “The only thing left to do is go crazy.”

Given this reality, it should be no surprise that half of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.

But most solitary prisoners eventually leave prison, and when they do they tend to have a hard time assimilating back into society. “One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement,” writer and physician Atul Gawande has noted, “is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction.”

Richard Wurmbrand was a Romanian Christian minister and anti-communist who languished as a political prisoner for fourteen years, including three years alone in a small windowless cell thirty feet below ground. Wurmbrand saw no one, he wrote in With God in Solitary Confinement, except “for the guards and interrogators who beat and tortured me.” Wurmbrand survived, but his time in solitary had a lasting effect. He wrote:

While I have left the solitary cell the solitary cell has never left me. Not one day passes without my living in it, whether I am at a large rally in the United States, in a church or committee meeting in Britain, or just sitting in a train. My real being has remained forever in solitary confinement.

In his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote that in solitary confinement: 

The mind begins to turn in on oneself, and one desperately wants something outside of oneself on which to fix one’s attention. I have known men who took half a dozen lashes in preference to being locked up alone. After a time in solitary, I relished the company even of the insects in my cell, and found myself on the verge of initiating conversations with a cockroach.

Solitary confinement strips prisoners of their dignity. “Nothing is more dehumanizing than the absence of human companionship,” Mandela wrote.

Some states have begun to curb the use of solitary confinement. New York State has cut back on the practice for the most vulnerable inmates, including children, pregnant women and prisoners with mental disabilities.

Anthony Annucci, New York’s prisoner commissioner, said the changes make New York prisons “more humane.” Other states, including California and Colorado, are also considering changes to their policies on prolonged isolation.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Rick Raemisch, director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, wrote about his experience spending twenty hours in solitary confinement. Twenty hours, he conceded, was “practically a blink” compared to the average stay of more than two years. But he still learned how devastating solitary can be. “Inmates in [solitary confinement] have, of course, committed serious crimes,” he concluded. “But I don’t believe that justifies the use of solitary confinement.”

To deny prisoners social interaction is to treat them as less than human. That’s because relationships—human connection and a sense of belonging—are at the heart of the human experience. Or as a prison psychiatrist in Solitary Nation says of his patients, “They don’t want to be grumpy. They don’t want to be upset. They just want contact that’s meaningful.”

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.