Prison Isolation is Torture, Ineffective, and Illogical

Solitary confinement is, at its core, simply what its name suggests; being confined to solitude. Sometimes called disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, or simply “the hole”, solitary confinement involves cutting a prisoner off from almost all human contact for 22-24 hours a day by placing them in a compact and barren cell with no access to other inmates. While prisoners within solitary confinement are subject to markedly raised chances of abuse at the hands of their penitentiary officials, there is no inherent physical harm supplied at the hands of prison staff to the inmates. This method of punishment is not meant to physically harm inmates, its goal is not to deter them from certain behaviors, and it is not meant to rehabilitate them. The goals of solitary confinement are to merely keep certain prisoners away from other people. This has made solitary confinement such an issue in our time and why activist groups and governments alike have dubbed it a form of torture. Limiting inmates from almost all human contact deprives them of any form of society, and has enormous negative side effects to one’s psyche.  Solitary confinement does not harm the body of the inmate, instead it errodes what makes us human.

Harmful Effects of Solitary:

Solitary confinement has been shown to induce effects similar to those “produced by physical torture”. In an excellent (and lengthy) report made by the University of North Carolina School of Law, the severe isolation that solitary confinement entails was found to cause anxiety, depression, mental illness, panic, and “constitutes as a form of torture”. The prisoners’ cells, along with being cramped and isolated, are many times either frigid or incredibly hot. Basic needs like hygiene and plumping are often not met; cells are dirty and prisoners cannot clean them, ventilation is poor and toilets/sinks/showers frequently do not work. With basic needs often not being met, and the lack of any human comforts, solitary confinement can wear down a prisoner’s mind and induce mental illness. However, the worst of the torture stems from the lack of human contact. This basic human need, to interact with others, is incredibly important to the maintenance of a healthy mind and body. Psychologists have seen that extreme isolation (even for a short time) can quickly cause long-lasting psychological harm, with many eventually self-mutilating or committing suicide.

Mental illness is a huge problem surrounding solitary confinement. Being mentally ill predisposes prisoners to be placed in segregation, as prison staff seek to contain prisoners that are difficult to manage. Locking them in solitary ensures that they will not be an issue with the general population. However, it is important to note that the tortuous conditions of solitary confinement can aggravate the effects of mental illness and be nearly-impossible for the inmate to handle. Administrative segregation can cause mental illness, make the disorder much more difficult to handle, and those solitary cells are likely to be populated with prisoners who are already mentally unstable.

Movements against it:

The effects of solitary confinement are recognized by many. From local activist groups, to international human rights campaigns, to the United Nations itself; solitary confinement has begun to be fully recognized as a severe form of torture. United Nations experts on torture have called for all countries to “ban the solitary confinement of prisoners…with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities”. In the U.S., the main legal argument against the use of solitary confinement is the claim that it violates the eight amendment (i.e. the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment on the behalf of the government, including the prison system). Convincing courts of what constitutes as cruel and unusual punishment, however, has often been a slow-going process with regards to the practices of the prison system. Therefore the abolition of solitary confinement on the grounds of it being torture has been difficult. The problem that activist groups face, as is the case with many legal controversies in the U.S., is that arguing for one interpretation of the constitution versus another is extremely difficult. One of the requirement of the Supreme Court, in order to prove an eighth amendment violation, is that those committing the act must be aware of how harmful the conditions are to the prisoners. Therefore, one of the most important moves that the anti-solitary confinement movement should take is to create awareness of the practice’s harmful psychology effects on the prisoner, targeting both the general population and (more importantly) the prison staff themselves.

Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, has attempted to expose the inhumane conditions of administrative segregation as torture (AI is simply one of many such organizations working on this issue). In an online petition calling for the end of this practice, the group claimed that “Over 80,000 people on any one day are held in isolation in US prisons. That’s 22-24 hours a day confined to a cell for months, years or decades in conditions of severe social and physical isolation”. Movements such as this have inspired several states to move away from such procedures, recognizing its harm. The awareness of the practice’s lasting mental health effects on prisoners, the lack of cost efficiency and the realization that the torture of inmates makes communities less safe. Maine is one such example, sending far fewer inmates than before to solitary, inmates spend less time there, and more care services are being provided to those that are in solitary confinement. With solitary confinement being more costly than is worth it, it is probable that other states will follow suit once even pressure is applied to the corrections officials and politicians.

Flawed Reasoning for solitary confinement:

Prisoner isolation does nothing positive for either the prisoners or greater society. The torture-like state of solitary confinement can lead to psychological stress through isolation that makes the integration into the public a near impossibility. Rehabilitation of prisoners and reducing recidivism are not likely after the trauma suffered from severe isolation and possible abuse at the hands of prison staff. Prisoners can become even more violent, withdrawn, and the lack of human contact would make the following society’s norms difficult. Even a United Nations expert on torture’s report concluded that “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system”.

However, it appears that the above-mentioned goals of the justice system (making the public safer) is not a priority to those running prisons. In one study, supermax prison facility wardens found that, in terms of their goals of using solitary confinement, the three least important priorities were rehabilitation, deterrence, and the reduction of recidivism. Instead, incapacitation and discipline were ranked among the highest-level goals. The driving force behind this practice is not to create contributing members of society, or to make that society safer. The goals of those running these prisons are to purely contain and punish. Political activists have pointed out that “solitary confinement is being used to conceal the fact that our prisons – overcrowded and overburdened by the government’s tough-on-crime policies – cannot accomplish even the most basic aspects of what we expect them to do”. 

Because prisoners within solitary confinement are often seen as the “worst of the worse” due to being members of prison society that qualify for further disciplinary measures, the mistreatment of these individuals is seen as acceptable, or even necessary. One might think that the cruel conditions of segregation might be justified to those working in the prison system through the dehumanization of these prisoners in this manner. This “othering” of certain inmates makes inmates liable to face little-to-no emotional support, restricted food, almost no human contact and a variety of abuses at the hands of prison officials. Entering the prison system whatsoever decreases the life chances of most by some degree. Facing longer and harsher sentences, felons likely find little to no opportunity in their post-prison life, and recidivism is very common. It stands to reason that those who faced solitary confinement, a punitive measure designed to isolate prisoners from any human contact, will likely face difficulty functioning in society in any successful fashion. The North Carolina School of Law Report concluded that “solitary confinement is ineffective at decreasing violence within prisons; it is ineffective at preserving public safety; it is ineffective at managing scarce monetary resources; and it violates the boundaries of human dignity and justice.”

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