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Solitary Confinement in the US: Too Much More National Shame

We’ve all learned a lot about the horrific and likely results of solitary confinement through the reported plight of Bradley Manning, and background reading we’ve done, and the cavalier attitude of our President, the officials at Quantico and within the DoD and Secretaries of the Military.  I know many of you share my dark thoughts about Quantico Commander Colonel Dan Choike and Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes for continuing to keep Manning under a Prevention of Injury Watch allowing such barbaric treatment, and Barack Obama for refusing to involve himself with it.

It’s all too easy to forget that Manning’s torment is being repeated many thousands of times each day, and for many prisoners in the country, over the course of years and sometimes decades.

More and more studies have reported on the severely deleterious effects of this often punitive incarceration, including the US Bureau of Prisons Commission, and yet the practice is still on the rise.

If one major shame is this simple fact, the other is that no one knows how many prisoners live this way.

Authors James Ridgeway and Jean Casella of Solitary Watch write that “Every day in the US, tens of thousands of prisoners languish in “the hole”, but that many states deny that they even use solitary confinement, but instead speak about ‘Secure Housing Units’, ‘Special Management Units’, or ‘Administrative Segregation’, but most states don’t report on their occupancy rates.  Apparently it’s not required; seriously?

Supermax prisons are estimated to house 20,000 prisoners in solitary, and Human Rights Watch and other organizatons that track the practice believe that as many as 80,000 inmates live in solitary on any given day in the US.  Perhaps 80,000.  But no one knows for sure.

Some cells are concrete-walled with beds and ‘desks’ of poured concrete or steel, with a steel sink and toilet; often the fluorescent lighting is on 24 hours a day; some prisoners report that they live always in the dark.

Prison journalist Wilbert Rideau, now free, said in his memoir In Place of Justice that when he was on death row in solitary confinement at Angola prison that he was housed in a metal cage ‘smaller than a bathroom’.  Other reporters claim many are smaller than those housing dogs at kennels.  The average time out of the cells is about an hour a day, three – five days a week for exercise.  In some prisons books are permitted.  Most are windowless, just walls… and steel doors with slots through which food or medications are passed.  If prisoners are allowed visitors, they are shackled, and most visits occur through a square foot of thick plexiglass.

The US prison population has exploded over the past decade, but the use of solitary has outpaced it at a rate of almost 2:1.  Guards and wardens like it; they have so much control over prisoners that it make their jobs easier.  I suppose it makes sense that the prison guard unions lobby appropriate legislative bodies to keep the system in tact, but we don’t have to be comfortable with the fact.  I’m not.

The Wikipedia entry for Solitary confinement addresses the proponents of the practice, and this is all the space I’ll give that side of the argument:

“Those who accept the practice consider it necessary for prisoners who are considered dangerous to other people (“the most predatory” prisoners), those who might be capable of leading crime groups even from within, or those who are kept ‘incommunicado’ for purported reasons of national security. Finally, it may be used for prisoners who are at high risk of being attacked by other inmates, such as pedophiles, celebrities, or witnesses who are in prison themselves. This latter form of solitary confinement is sometimes referred to as protective custody.”

What are the roots of this burgeoning practice?  Oddly enough, it seems to have had its inception in 1829 in Pennsylvania, where Quakers believed that inmates would benefit from communing with God in the silence, undistracted by other prisoners.  Now, of course, the American Friends Service Committee works diligently against prisoner abuses.

Bonnie Kernes, writing at draws one of the most complete synopses I’ve read on the subject.  She writes that the practice was largely abandoned once it was discovered to cause so many mental breakdowns, and was revived in the early seventies in experiments into behavioral modification or ‘control’, which sometimes included beatings, torture and psychological abuse.  In fact, in 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

Kernes reports on yet another shame:

The development of control units can be traced to the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, during which time many activists found themselves in U.S. prisons. We believe this use of isolation stems directly from the brain-washing techniques used during the Korean War. Sensory deprivation as a form of behavior modification was used extensively for imprisoned members of the Black Panther party, members of Black Liberation Army formations, members of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, members of the American Indian Movement, white activists, jail house lawyers, Islamic militants, and prison activists. At one time or another, they all found themselves living in extended isolation, sometimes for years on end. Many political prisoners still live in isolation, not because they have received charges for infractions, but because of who they are and what they believe.”

In 1972 the fist control unit prison was constructed at Marion, Illinois.  In 1983 an episode of violence caused prison officials to ‘lock down’ the prison, keeping inmates in their cells 24 hours a day.  That lockdown has never been lifted.

The idea spread, and in 1995 the first Supermax was built in Florence, CO; the ‘worst of the worst’ are said to be housed there, though it’s been proven not to be precisely true, but there are plenty of Bad Guys there, many of whom are watched continually lest they communicate with others and spread their messages to other ‘terrorists’ in the wider world.

That we hold our citizens in solitary who are politically inconvenient is horrific, but it leads us to another monumental injustice: many prisoners in constant isolation are mentally ill. It’s hard to know the exact numbers, but a psychiatrist writing for Human Rights Watch says:

“The use of segregation to confine the mentally ill has grown as the number and proportion of prisoners with mental illness have grown. Although designed and operated as places of punishment, prisons have nonetheless become de facto psychiatric facilities despite often lacking the needed mental health services. Studies and clinical experience consistently indicate that 8 to 19 percent of prisoners have psychiatric disorders that result in significant functional disabilities, and another 15 to 20 percent require some form of psychiatric intervention during their incarceration.  Sixty percent of state correctional systems responding to a survey on inmate mental health reported that 15 percent or more of their inmate population had a diagnosed mental illness.”

And very little mental health help, if any, nor little understanding by the medical community, as they also report.

Solitary Watch is the place to visit for updates on issues (Brad Manning for one), and personal stories of inmates who’ve experienced human contact free imprisonment; all are heart-and-gut wrenching.  But for me, there was one tiny quote that made me reel like no other, and I can’t say why exactly.

It was from Robert King, one of the Angola Three, about whom Anita Roddick inspired Vadim Jean to make a documentary film titled In the Land of the Free.

“The only one of the ‘Angola three’ at liberty, Robert King, said his ability to see distance was permanently altered by his years alone in a cell. “I had no concept of how you actually looked further, as a result of living in such a small space,” he said.

(King now campaigns for the release of Woodfox and Wallace. The men’s isolation stems from their conviction for the killing of a prison guard, found stabbed to death in the early seventies in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.)

Human Rights Watch says:

“International treaty bodies and human rights experts, including the Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, have concluded that solitary confinement may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. They have specifically criticized supermax confinement in the United States because of the mental suffering it inflicts. Whatever one’s views on supermax confinement in general, human rights experts agree that its use for inmates with serious mental illness violates their human rights.”

[Update]: I should have included prison rape in this diary; I will now.  From

An estimated 88,500 adult inmates — 4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of jail inmates — reported at least one instance of sexual victimization in the previous year, according to a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. At a Hughes Unit prison in Texas, the facility with the highest rates of reported victimization, 8.6 percent of inmates reported being sexually assaulted by another inmate. Sexual victimization by guards is equally as prevalent. In the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Missouri, the male facility with the highest rates of guard sexual misconduct, 8.2 percent of inmates reported being victimized. At the women’s Bayview Correctional Facility in New York, 11.5 percent of inmates reported sexual victimization by guards.

When a prisoner comes forward and reports a sexual assault, he or she is more likely to face retribution than redress. Complaining prisoners frequently face retaliatory harassment, discipline or further abuse. A full 25 percent of inmate victims are summarily sent to solitary confinement, according to the Department of Justice’s own numbers.”

As my daughter used to say about injustices she’d witness when she was a child, “That’s just not right.” And given the fact that more and more prisons in the US are being privatized, the more likely this Cruel and Unusual practice may become unless we make it stop.

Colorado presently has a bill to limit the use of solitary under consideration, and Maine is considering one.

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