In the United States today at least 80,000 prisoners are being held in some sort of isolation unit, commonly called solitary confinement. Prisoners in solitary are isolated in a 6X8 foot concrete room for 23 hours a day. This is how the United States government chooses to regulate the prisons, by locking prisoners in this cell for weeks, months or even years on end. Most prisoners are allowed 1 hour a day for “recreation” where they are allowed to go outside, alone, in a fenced area about the size of their cell. It is a dirty, cold, concrete room with only a metal slot in the door that they receive meals through. The room contains a bed, shower, and toilet, as well as a very small amount of personal items. They receive no educational classes, rehabilitative programs or other transitional services to help them prepare for their return to society, even when they are going to be released soon.
They have absolutely no structure to their day. Since I was a child I have always been interested in the Criminal Justice System. I have long hoped to become a prosecutor and have always been curious about prisons and criminals. My original curiosity with solitary confinement specifically came from a Law and Order episode I saw. The main detective asked to be put in solitary confinement for a weekend to prove that the criminal’s defense was fake (the criminal was claiming he pushed the detective off the roof because of the psychological suffering he endured in solitary confinement). Throughout the episode I watched, as the detective slowly started hallucinating and got very anxious and angry. I assumed that the show was exaggerating for entertainment value however I wanted to find out whether that was true.
Throughout my research process I have found that the symptoms the detective displayed are the same symptoms that thousands of real prisoners have. Through out my quest to learn more about the practice of Solitary confinement, my opinion has changed dramatically. At the beginning of this project I thought of this topic the same way I think about almost everything else, very black and white. I had little sympathy for prisoners, even those held in solitary confinement. I didn’t think of it as torture and didn’t understand what the problem was. Throughout my research my opinion has started becoming grayer, creating an internal tension for me between two conflicting views.
I have a strong held belief that prisons provide justice and safety. I hope to become a prosecutor to execute law and order. However, I have become conflicted throughout this assignment because I have found that this way of punishment has been clearly shown to be immoral and inhuman. For my “site visit” I visited the Valhalla county jail. I was struck by the number of wives, parents, teenagers and young children who were there to visit loved ones. I listened in on defense attorney KL’s conversations with two of his clients and was shocked to find that I really did feel that one of them was being charged too harshly.
I am of course not defending what the prisoners did, and many of them deserve to be locked up, but the thought these people are treated so inhumanly, I feel disgraces our country and what it stands for. America, which supposedly stands for freedom, justice and the pursuit of happiness, locks up thousands and thousands of men, women, and teenagers sometimes as young as 14, in a cage. How could America, the land of freedom and opportunity, take part in such an appalling practice? Most of us wouldn’t treat our dogs the way the prisons treat the criminals, especially those in solitary confinement.
Solitary Confinement was first used in the Auburn state prison during a two-year experiment in 1821, during which scientists observed people in extreme isolation. They housed a group of prisoners in individual cells “without any labor or other adequate provisions for physical exercise.” Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont reported, “This trial, from which a happy result had been anticipated, was fatal to the greater part of the convicts: in order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills. The unfortunates, upon whom this experiment was made, fell into a state of depression, so manifest, that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger, if they remained longer in this situation.” This experiment was done almost two hundred years ago and although the results were horrendous, solitary is still used today.
It is sometimes necessary however. According to solitarywatch.com, Solitary confinement is used for three main reasons: protection, punishment and rehabilitation. Through out my research I have found very little data to suggest solitary confinement is the least bit rehabilitative, so I have come to the conclusion that it is really only used for punishment and as a protective measure. Certain inmates such as former police officers and child molesters are more likely to be attacked by other inmates while in prison and are therefore put there for their own protection. Solitary confinement is also used as a way to regulate the prisons. When a prisoner gets into a fight with another inmate or violates a prison rule, they are put in solitary confinement, or what the guards call, “the bing”, as punishment.
It is called “the bing” because many of the prisoners start going crazy when placed in solitary confinement. Some common side affects are: hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, paranoia, feelings of rage and fear, distortions of time and perception, depression, anxiety, PTSD and an increased risk of suicide. When these side affects occur, the prisoners often start screaming and become very incoherent and manic.
In 2009, Robert Foor, an Illinois inmate with mental illness, was placed in isolation and “became more mentally ill, mutilating himself by cutting and biting, and [attempted] to hang himself.” He ultimately died in solitary confinement at Tamms Correctional Center. Another Tamms inmate whose mental health had been notably declining, faced increasing isolation and longer sentences, due to incidents of throwing feces and urine at guards. One study even found that the people held in solitary developed were more likely to become psychopaths than those in the general population (28% vs. 15%).
“The isolation unit at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois has been described as consisting of “gray walls, a solid steel door, no window, no clock, and a light that was kept on twenty-four hours a day.” Living in those kinds of conditions, it’s hard to imagine someone not going crazy. Another comparison I made to my own life was that I realized that when I spend even 5 hours in my room alone, I become anxious and sometimes depressed. My room is clean, not made of concrete and has a bed, light, desk, laptop and phone. Although I choose to keep my door closed I could come out at any time I want, I just choose not to. If I become anxious and depressed after only several hours alone in a small room, with conditions much nicer then the solitary cells, then I can’t even begin to imagine how the prisoners in solitary feel.
Furthermore, I have found that solitary confinement is not only harmful for the prisoners, but for our society as a whole. It is detrimental for our society for two main reasons. The first is that it is much harder for prisoners who spend a prolonged period in solitary confinement to reintegrate into society. Many of the prisoners suffer from PTSD and other mental conditions because they have very limited human contact for months or even years. This makes it dangerous for them to then be released into the general population, especially when they have very little guidance before being released or after. Many prisoners are released directly into society from solitary confinement.
Research done by the human rights watch, show that prisoners in solitary have a much higher rate of re-incarceration because of their anger and depression. With little education, classes or skill training, it is difficult for them to become productive members of society. They are unable to get jobs because of their limited skills and because of their arrest record. People are judgmental; very few people want former criminals working for them. I have found that many people don’t realize that people make mistakes and go to jail only to suffer, probably more then than the suffer they once caused. Prisoners are beaten, raped, and isolated, causing severe physical and psychological damage.
Another disadvantage for the society as whole is that housing prisoners in solitary confinement cost approximately three times as much as it does to house a prisoner in the general prison population. According to a news article published by the Daily News, it costs American taxpayers $75,000 per inmate in solitary confinement per year as opposed to $25,000 dollars per inmate in the general population per year. It also came to my attention that solitary confinement has long been called a “human rights violation”. America is violating the Geneva Convention by putting people in solitary confinement. The psychological harm that the prisoners undergo in solitary is considered torture.
Sister Marion Defeis who worked as a Chaplain for 23 years at Rikers Island wrote, “When I would make visits, walking cell by cell, I was overwhelmed by the lethargy and depression of the inmates. That’s not how our system is supposed to work. We have prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.” While this is true, no alternative to solitary has so far been put to action. I conducted a phone interview with Marion Defeis who was explaining her work at Rikers as well as her current work at a non-profit organization in Brooklyn for single mothers previously incarcerated.
The alternative she proposed was that when there is an altercation in the prison the prisoner should be separated to a different area and should receive psychological help to try to improve their mental state, instead of locking them up which will ultimately worsen the situation. She also felt that the punishments that the prisons use do not always fit the crime committed. The chart below shows how many isolation sentences there were because of different violations.
During an interview with Mr. L he explained that a lot of times when there is an altercation it is the victim of the abuse that is put in solitary confinement. Although it is for their own protection, he feels that it is unjust for the victim to have a worse penalty when it was the offenders that committed the violation. A lot of times minors are also put there to protect them from the adult prisoners which he felt was unfair that they should get a worse penalty just because they were younger and therefore more vulnerable. These two instances both dramatically changed my views on solitary confinement and made me more sympathetic to what the prisoners held in solitary go through. Although Mr. Lawrence did feel solitary confinement is overused, he did clearly find it necessary in some situations. This was surprising because as a defense attorney I expected him to be very against it.
Another essential moment throughout my research process was during my conversation with former prosecutor Mrs. Levine. She really only dealt with solitary as a protective measure, when there was a witness that was going to be put in jail with the person they were testifying against, they would need to be separated to insure they would not be injured or killed in jail. She explained that when she was going through the training to become a prosecutor she had to visit a solitary cell. She told me that she would really have to feel that she was in serious danger to be willing to be put in those kinds of horrible conditions. One researcher who took part in a report conducted by the New York Civil liberties union stated, “It doesn’t take half a brain to realize we’re not going to get a good product out of this.” This was a very powerful quote for me that landmarked a shift in my thinking.
When a single researcher can so clearly see the affects of solitary confinement after only one study, how can the rest of the country not see the detrimental affects after all the research collected? Not only are thousands of people held in solitary confinement, but so many different kinds of people are put in solitary as well. Prisoners as young as 14 years old to as old as 70, men and women, whites, blacks and Hispanics as well as a lot of times, the mentally ill. According to the American Friends service committee, “An independent investigation from 2006 reported that as many as 64 percent of prisoners in SHUs were mentally ill, a much higher percentage than is reported by states for their general prison populations.”
Frequently, mentally ill prisoners who are placed in the general prison population commit crimes and are put in solitary, which only exacerbates the problem. Once their punishment is over they are put back into the general prison population but at that point they have even more severe mental problems and once again end up in solitary. Furthermore, it has been reported that a disproportionate number of black people are in jail or in solitary compared to the NYS population. This is represented in the chart below. For the community service portion of this project I volunteered at the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry NY with boys ages 8-12, many of whom have parents currently detained.
I spoke with several staff members who explained that incarceration is an everlasting cycle. The staff works hard to break this cycle by helping to teach the boys necessary skills to succeed in life. It was shocking to me to realize that jail and solitary confinement would ever relate so directly to my life. When I found out that many of the parents of these children who I have been tutoring for the last three years are in jail, I thought differently of the children. I became more sympathetic and understanding of what they have lived through and realized that they weren’t just out of control kids who didn’t feel like learning their multiplication table. Their parents were living in cages.
That’s why they were so angry and depressed and refused to learn. It also discovered that just 10 minutes away from my house was a maximum-security prison called the Bedford Correctional Facility. Not only are their hundreds of women housed there, but about 25 of them are held in solitary confinement. Their children come to visit them with their foster parents and have to kiss their mothers through glass. My struggle throughout this assignment has been withholding judgment about the topic. If I were not required to keep an open mind, this would have been a very different process. There is still much to be learned about the practice of solitary confinement.
I have now recognized how harmful solitary confinement is to the prisoners, country and society as a whole, however it is hard to put an end to solitary confinement without coming up with an alternative solution. This project has also made me wonder why they call prisons “correctional facilities”. I have found no evidence to show that these “facilities” help “correct” anything. Sister Marion Defeis’s alternative is certainly a possibility, however it would require a lot of time, effort and certainly money that I am not sure society would be willing to pay for people who have been found to have committed such horrific offenses.