Jacki Lyden /NPR
A hallway at Eastern State Penitentiary in
Philadelphia. The prison, opened in 1829 and closed in 1970, pioneered
the use of solitary confinement.
An estimated 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years.
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.
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.
An Uncertain Method
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"[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
"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
Living Through Isolation
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.
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
"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.
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."