It’s Time To End Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

Two American inmates have been held in solitary for more than forty years, but a movement is growing to ban this controversial practice

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In April, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace marked a grim anniversary. The two Louisiana State Prison inmates, both in their 60s, had been held in solitary confinement for 40 years. Amnesty International condemned their punishment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and called it a violation of human rights law.

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Tens of thousands of American inmates are being held in solitary confinement, but little attention has been paid to whether that is the right thing to do. That changed last week, when a Senate subcommittee held the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. The takeaway: it is time to substantially roll back, if not end, solitary confinement in American prisons.

Although there is an ongoing debate over whether solitary confinement should be classified as “torture,” one thing is clear: it is a barbaric form of punishment. Inmates are kept in tiny cells, in many cases without windows, in some cases for years or even decades. They generally interact with no one, except the occasional guard who shoves food into their cell or shackles and unshackles them for a solo exercise break.

Solitary confinement takes a brutal toll on anyone subjected to it — often pushing them past the breaking point. At last week’s congressional hearing, one former inmate — who was released from a Texas prison in 2010 after being exonerated — said that solitary confinement is “by its design driving men insane.” About half of suicides and a disproportionate amount of cases of self-mutilation occur among inmates in solitary. It is not just modern sensibilities that are offended by the cruelty of solitary confinement. Charles Dickens called it a “dreadful” punishment and declared it mentally torturous in ways that “none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creatures.”

Rather than reserving solitary confinement for the most vicious, unrepentant criminals, American prisons dole it out in heaping portions — and often for no good reason. Some inmates are put in solitary confinement for repeated violations of minor prison rules. There was a report at the congressional hearing of a prisoner who was caught with 17 packs of cigarettes and given 15 days for each pack, or eight months. Worse still: many inmates are put in solitary not because they have done anything wrong, but for their own protection. This includes victims of in-prison attacks and sexual assaults, gay inmates and children.

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Adding to the numbers: the 1990s boom in Supermax prisons, which were built to house inmates in solitary confinement. One 2005 study found that 40 states were operating Supermax, or similar-styled, prisons, which held 25,000 inmates. But many ordinary prisons also place inmates in solitary — generally at the unchecked discretion of corrections officials.

As far back as 1890, the Supreme Court called solitary confinement an “infamous punishment” and said of it: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, even after a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane…” What the court did not do then — and still has not done — is to take the logical step of declaring solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment.

Although the courts have declined — so far, at least — to put an end to it, solitary confinement could nevertheless be at a turning point. Momentum has been building against it for the past few years. In 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommended ending “conditions of isolation,” or short of that, reining in the most abusive uses of solitary confinement. There is a fledgling religious campaign to end the practice, including a short documentary, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard,” produced by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

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Last week’s congressional hearing is the biggest step yet in the drive to end or curb solitary confinement. Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said he intends to introduce a bill to reform how solitary confinement is used in federal prisons.

The anti-solitary confinement campaign has one more factor working in its favor: the current weak economy. At the hearing, Senator Durbin noted that solitary confinement is extremely expensive. His state’s Supermax prison cost more than $61,000 per inmate in 2010, compared to about $22,000 for other prisons. With government budgets hard-pressed these days, solitary confinement may simply be a practice we can no longer afford.