Solitary confinement amounts to torture. The practice includes isolating a prisoner in a small cell, often 6ft by 9 ft, for 23 to 24 hours a day—often for weeks or months, and sometimes for years or decades at a time. The United States is one of the few countries to use the punishment so expansively; there are more than 100,000 people confined in boxes barely adequate for an animal to live let alone a human. The federal system houses roughly 20,000 inmates in solitary confinement, many who are held in supermax locales where minimal or no human contact is permitted. State facilities warehouse the remaining prisoners. The number of people locked up and isolated exceed the entire prison populations of countries such as the UK, France, and Germany.
The psychological effects of solitary confinement are well defined and documented. “[Solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of psychoses–seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities”, according to “Solitary Watch. The journal also opines that Mental Illness is common among those placed in solitary confinement and “For these inmates, placing them in [solitary confinement] is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air.” The rate of suicide among those inmates placed in solitary confinement versus general population is staggering.
Of course, we have known for over a half century that solitary confinement is a wicked practice. In the 50’s and 60’s, we learned through Dr. Harry Harlow’s infamous experiments with rhesus monkeys that his horrifying round of isolation experiments caused the poor critters to be incapable of doing much more than pacing, rocking and sucking their fingers. When released to the general population, they were bullied and resorted to attacking the larger primates with “suicidal aggression.” We treat humans just as badly when we isolate them in our prisons.
President Obama is trying to put pressure on the states to curb or end isolation– he has used his executive powers to help combat the problem in federal prisons– more needs to be done. We cannot understand, why except in very special cases (where the danger of prison personnel or other inmates is imminent), the practice of isolation is not abandoned. In the words of Bob Dylan, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see.”