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Solitary Confinement: Punishment Or Cruelty?

Posted by on Mar. 10, 2013 at 8:48 PM
  • 14 Replies

Solitary Confinement: Punishment Or Cruelty?

A hallway at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The prison, opened in 1829 and closed in 1970, pioneered the use of solitary confinement.

Jacki Lyden /NPR

An estimated 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years.

Now, amid growing evidence that it causes mental breakdown, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided for the first time to review its policies on solitary confinement.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which pioneered solitary confinement, is a castle of a prison that was meant to reform incarceration itself when it opened in 1829. The idea behind the prison's solitary confinement areas was to use sensory deprivation to reform inmates. The thought was that the isolation and quiet would free the innately good soul.

"They believed that isolation here was going to bring about the best of these inmates. Change them for life. Make them penitent," says Sean Kelley, director of public programming at the historic site. "There is a lot of evidence that that is not what happened."

For many reasons that sound familiar today – including cost and questionable effectiveness — Eastern State dropped the practice in 1913, but by then the blueprint of this penitentiary had been copied more than 300 times across the Western world. The prison, once a state-of-the-art facility, closed its doors in 1970, and is now a museum.

One of the cells at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke/AP

An Uncertain Method

Solitary confinement exploded with the law-and-order policies of the 1980s, when almost every state built what's called a "supermax" for the so-called "worst of the worst." But since then, more questions have been raised about the mental health of prisoners held this way.

Last summer, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights subcommittee, led hearings to address solitary confinement practices. He says it was prompted by a New Yorker article by Boston surgeon Atul Gowande titled "Hellhole."

"I read it, and I couldn't forget it," Durbin tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "It was all about the impact of segregation and isolation on prisoners, and I started thinking about it as part of my agenda for my subcommittee on human rights."

Testifying in front of the committee was Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Samuels explained the necessity of the solitary confinement to keep violent inmates apart from guards and other prisoners.

"The use of any form of restricted housing, however limited, remains a critical management tool that helps us maintain safety, security and effective reentry programming for all federal inmates," Samuels said.

The BOP wouldn't grant an interview for this story, but provided a comment saying the bureau is confident the review "will highlight both the strengths that the Bureau brings to corrections management, as well as innovative ideas from the states."

Solitary confinement already doubles to triples the costs of incarceration, up to $60,000 a year per inmate. But wardens who've seen its wide use now in the last 30 years have their own evaluation of whether it does more harm than good.

"I really believed when I got close to the situation at the supermax in Wisconsin that one of the things that I was seeing was mentally ill people who didn't come in mentally ill," says Walter Dickey, formerly the secretary of corrections for Wisconsin.

Dickey tells NPR's Lyden that the level of security and the overcrowding he saw were detrimental to a prisoner's mental health, even when they didn't start out in isolation. He doesn't, however, think the practice should be dropped.

"[The feds] had experiences in which they had inmates kill multiple staff members and multiple inmates," he says. "People like that need to be isolated, at least temporarily, if not for a longer period of time until you can release them into the population, the general population, with some confidence that they're not going to do severe damage to other people."

At the hearing, Durbin noted that after Mississippi had done away with solitary confinement, prison violence went down by 50 percent and the cost of incarceration went down as well.

"It was a wake-up call to all of us to take a hard look at it," he says. "Maybe this just isn't the best way to deal with these problems."

Living Through Isolation

As prisoners testify about suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, hallucinations and other ills, more attention is being paid to inmates who have lived through the extreme, often uncertain isolation.

Robert King is one of the Angola Three — one of the men serving the longest sentences in the country in solitary confinement — in his case at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. King was released in 2001, after serving 29 years in solitary, at times in a 3-by-6 cell that he describes as a "tomb."

"There was a slab of concrete that you slept on ... and during the winter time you froze, and during the summer time you overheated," King says.

During his time in prison, King says he saw the system, and the solitary confinement, change people. He says he saw once open people become more withdrawn as time went on.

"I kind of insulated myself when I saw what happened to them; I think it created a steel resolve in myself to not succumb to that," he says.

After his release, King published a book, and he also speaks internationally, but despite his post-incarceration success, he says the effects of his solitary confinement still lingers.

"I don't think a person could get dipped in waste and not come up smelling," he says. "Even though it may not be totally apparent, the impact and the effects are there."

by on Mar. 10, 2013 at 8:48 PM
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Replies (1-10):
tambrathegreat
by on Mar. 10, 2013 at 9:06 PM
5 moms liked this

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.  Humans are social animals and the do tend to go crazy when they are cut off from social interaction.  This practice should be abolished along with the death penalty.A civilized culture should never engage in either of them.

AjsMom0508
by Member on Mar. 10, 2013 at 9:09 PM
1 mom liked this
I agree with this. I don't agree with solitary confinement or the death penalty. Prison is hard enough on an individuals body and mind. Solitary confinement is a definite threat to mental well being and really causes more problems than it corrects.

Quoting tambrathegreat:

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.  Humans are social animals and the do tend to go crazy when they are cut off from social interaction.  This practice should be abolished along with the death penalty.A civilized culture should never engage in either of them.

Posted on the NEW CafeMom Mobile
HuggaBug1991
by on Mar. 10, 2013 at 9:22 PM
3 moms liked this

I think they should have time to be social with other cell-mates and bring the death penalty back in full force....If they didn't want to be punished like that then they shouldn't have comitted the crimes they did!!! They do not deserve to be treated fairly and live in a luxious life. Why would they want to change their ways, if they know that they would just be treated better then some of us out in the real world are! They don't pay rent, pay for their food, etc..... WE DO! If we actually punished criminals like we should then I believe we wouln't be having all the grief in the world!

KamWorthy
by Silver Member on Mar. 10, 2013 at 9:29 PM
1 mom liked this
If it fits the crime....punishment, worthy punishment.
CarlyK23
by New Member on Mar. 10, 2013 at 9:32 PM

I think it's fine if regulated and not abused. These people are in prison for a reason and deserve to actually have some hardship. 

KamWorthy
by Silver Member on Mar. 10, 2013 at 9:57 PM
One who has not been the victim of a horrific crime or have not known someone close to them who has, would say that solitary confinement is cruel.
Quoting CarlyK23:

I think it's fine if regulated and not abused. These people are in prison for a reason and deserve to actually have some hardship. 

CarlyK23
by New Member on Mar. 10, 2013 at 10:02 PM

I'm not sure why you quoted me....I don't think solitary confinement is cruel. I think it's fine if used properly and not done to the point of causing serious mental damage....

Quoting KamWorthy:

One who has not been the victim of a horrific crime or have not known someone close to them who has, would say that solitary confinement is cruel.
Quoting CarlyK23:

I think it's fine if regulated and not abused. These people are in prison for a reason and deserve to actually have some hardship. 


DSamuels
by Gold Member on Mar. 10, 2013 at 11:45 PM
Prison should be hard! It's punishment for a crime. Solitary confinement? It depends why they are using it. In some cases I think it can be appropriate, it depends how long they are in solitary.

Quoting AjsMom0508:

I agree with this. I don't agree with solitary confinement or the death penalty. Prison is hard enough on an individuals body and mind. Solitary confinement is a definite threat to mental well being and really causes more problems than it corrects.



Quoting tambrathegreat:

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.  Humans are social animals and the do tend to go crazy when they are cut off from social interaction.  This practice should be abolished along with the death penalty.A civilized culture should never engage in either of them.

Posted on CafeMom Mobile
ashleighmama
by Member on Mar. 11, 2013 at 2:53 AM
I agree with this:

Quoting HuggaBug1991:

I think they should have time to be social with other cell-mates and bring the death penalty back in full force....If they didn't want to be punished like that then they shouldn't have comitted the crimes they did!!! They do not deserve to be treated fairly and live in a luxious life. Why would they want to change their ways, if they know that they would just be treated better then some of us out in the real world are! They don't pay rent, pay for their food, etc..... WE DO! If we actually punished criminals like we should then I believe we wouln't be having all the grief in the world!

Posted on CafeMom Mobile
Healthystart30
by Silver Member on Mar. 11, 2013 at 4:41 AM
I think it's a disgusting practice that needs to stop! Especially when it comes to mentally ill people! There is a difference between using it to keep people save, another to have people sit in there day in and day out without any interaction, sometimes sitting in their own feces! Just the thought of it makes me sick. Every psychologist will tell you that humans are social animals that need interaction! Locking them in isolation does not make them better, it makes them worse.
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