SPOTLIGHT – Looking again at Solitary Confinement

“Hell is other people.”

Compared to much of human history, modern prison life might not sound so bad: you won’t starve, you won’t freeze, and you won’t get eaten by a lion. The worst part is probably, as Sartre reminded us, other people. The stabbings, the fights, the general background-threat of violence. If you’re prone towards the misanthropic, solitary confinement might sound like a decent compromise; at least you’ll be left alone.

Here, it might help to remember an adage from the medical world: the dose makes the poison. Drink enough water, and your body’s normal balance of electrolytes is thrown into disarray – a potentially fatal condition. Surrounded by dangerous people in an overcrowded environment, we might all reason that we’d rather opt for solitude – but there’s solid evidence that too much of it can be devastating.

(c) jmiller291 via Flickr.

(c) jmiller291 via Flickr.

While in solitary confinement, inmates are typically restricted to a cell for 23 hours a day, with one hour of individual recreation in a slightly larger pen. The reasons for placing an inmate into solitary are varied. If a prisoner is a threat to him or herself, or to others, the prisoner can be isolated. The same applies if one is being threatened by other prisoners. In such cases, the logic of solitary confinement is at least clear: create distance between parties in conflict or provide around-the-clock surveillance for those who might injure themselves. However, it gets trickier when it’s used to punish routine misbehavior or to deal with nonviolent behavioral challenges, as is often the case.

Reports collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency, show that a high percentage of the inmates housed in solitary exhibit “symptoms of serious psychological distress” unrelated to their confinement, raising questions about whether the practice is being overused as a population management technique in cases where mental health services would be more appropriate.

Because America’s prison systems are a patchwork of institutions operated at the local, state, and federal levels, it is difficult to obtain accurate estimates of the total number of people who experience solitary confinement. A common estimate is that at any given moment, there are upwards of 80,000 people being held in solitary – but that number is hard to interpret: if prisoners cycle in and out of segregated units, then a snapshot estimate underrepresents the true prevalence of the practice. Experts believe that around one in five prisoners will at some point be held in solitary confinement, and that the popularity of the practice has been increasing over time.

It is likewise hard to know with certainty how long people spend in solitary, but the estimates available from some states seem to indicate that the average stay ranges from several months to many years.

No part of that development should be surprising: if you give an overworked bureaucracy a tool that greatly streamlines the way they deal with a vexing problem, they will tend to overuse it.

For prison staff, solitary confinement provides a way to control often difficult inmate populations, but the long-term effects on inmates are severe. People held in such conditions have a dramatically increased risk of suicide, which is especially remarkable when we consider that their cells are specifically designed to make suicide more difficult. Medical professionals have observed a host of psychological problems stemming from the conditions of solitary confinement: anxiety, obsessive behavior, violent outbursts, severe depression, and heart palpitations have all been reported (see below).

The public often has an unrecognized metaphor informing how they imagine solitary confinement: when a child misbehaves, they’re sent to “time out”. Some imagine that solitary confinement is the adult version of a time out. It isn’t. The physical conditions of solitary confinement can be difficult to contemplate: prisoners are denied reading material, writing implements, or any way to tell time. They can’t receive visitors and they might even lack bedding, instead sleeping on a solid platform. The fluorescent lights and their accompanying buzz are routinely kept on around the clock.

This can last for years.

People might also imagine that there is a relationship between the severity of a crime or infraction and the likelihood of ending up in solitary; there often isn’t. The most serious or infamous criminals – men like Charlie Manson and the Unabomber – are placed in ‘Supermax’ prisons, where they are kept in solitary confinement on a permanent basis. But the overwhelming majority of people who are held in solitary find themselves in prison for common crimes and, at some point while serving their sentences, they are isolated for routine infractions. One group of Rastafarians spent a decade in solitary because they refused haircuts.

As is so often the case with America’s prison system, there is a deep and abiding contradiction in the way solitary confinement is used. The overwhelming majority of people subjected to solitary share two traits. First, they are by definition poorly adjusted to social norms, or else they would not find themselves in prison. Second, they will eventually rejoin society. A system that takes troubled and broken people and exposes them to psychological trauma before rereleasing them into society is a system that has failed to understand the most basic elements of cause and effect.

If hell is other people, so is life. For tens of thousands of prisoners, solitary confinement is a living death, but they will one day come out and return to the world of the living. Then what?

Further reading: Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives from the Vera Institute and Solitary Watch.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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