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Solitary Confinement Is Torture

by Nahal Zamani, Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

This week, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that it will launch an assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system, amid growing scrutiny of the practice.

The use of solitary confinement is nothing new. In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. led the world in a new practice of imprisoning people in solitary cells, without access to any human contact or stimulation, as a method of rehabilitation. The results were disastrous — prisoners quickly became severely mentally disturbed — and the practice was abandoned. However, a century later, the practice made a dramatic comeback.

Today, the use of solitary is rampant in U.S. prisons. Tens of thousands of individuals across the country are detained inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells in a state of near-total solitude for between 22 and 24 hours a day. The cells have a slot in the door large enough for a guard to slip a food tray through. Prisoners in solitary confinement are frequently deprived of telephone calls and contact visits. “Recreation” involves being taken, often in handcuffs and shackles, to another solitary cell where prisoners can pace alone for an hour before being returned to their cell.

Read about the experiences of one prisoner here.

Not only is solitary confinement severely restrictive, it is also incredibly harmful. Social scientists have documented the devastating psychological and physical effects of prolonged solitary confinement, including significant psychological harms. Researchers have demonstrated that prolonged solitary confinement causes a persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Other documented effects include obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, an oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, chronic depression, feelings of overall deterioration, and suicidal ideation.

This exposure to such life-shattering conditions is clearly cruel and unusual punishment.  Indeed, the use of solitary has been condemned as torture by the international community.

In addition, the use of solitary confinement is a tool in service of political, racial, and religious repression. Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression against individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who advocate for just conditions of confinement, or are political prisoners from various civil rights and independence movements.

In in light of the rampant and increased use of solitary confinement, and its perilous effects, a growing movement is calling for its end. Most important, prisoner-led movements are attracting media attention and public scrutiny of harsh conditions of confinement, including overcrowding, the use of isolation, deplorable health conditions, substandard medical care, and the discriminatory and careless treatment of people with mental illnesses. These efforts have included prisoner-led hunger strikes. Take action here in solidarity with the prisoners.

In 2012, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il.) chaired a hearing on the use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons, and has since met twice with the BOP Director to call for an assessment and reforms.  The Center for Constitutional Rights, along with others, has also launched a legal challenge against California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement in the infamous Pelican Bay prison. Learn more about the Ruiz v. Brown lawsuit with this link.  Many others have launched legislative and advocacy campaigns, as well as legal challenges, to limit and end the use of solitary across the country. This week’s announcement marks a critical step forward towards rethinking the use of this egregious practice, but must not result in a whitewash. We will be standing watch.

Center for Constitutional Rights

Center for Constitutional Rights