Solitary Confinement Is Stupid

Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, March 30, 2009

Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.

I have long argued that incarceration should not be used to punish criminals. The goals should be rehabilitation and separation. Prison officials should have a mandate to treat inmates with respect and provide them with a decent quality of life. Solitary confinement should never be used to punish inmates or to keep them safe. It is a cruel practice that has no place in an industrialized, first-world, enlightened society.

If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

It’s an excellent question. Why do we in the United States insist on the barbarity of prolonged isolation of prisoners?

Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven’t they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim’s family and told them that he’d gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.

The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism.

What is it like in a supermax prison?

As in other supermaxes—facilities designed to isolate prisoners from social contact—Dellelo was confined to his cell for at least twenty-three hours a day and permitted out only for a shower or for recreation in an outdoor cage that he estimated to be fifty feet long and five feet wide, known as “the dog kennel.” He could talk to other prisoners through the steel door of his cell, and during recreation if a prisoner was in an adjacent cage. He made a kind of fishing line for passing notes to adjacent cells by unwinding the elastic from his boxer shorts, though it was contraband and would be confiscated. Prisoners could receive mail and as many as ten reading items. They were allowed one phone call the first month and could earn up to four calls and four visits per month if they followed the rules, but there could be no physical contact with anyone, except when guards forcibly restrained them. Some supermaxes even use food as punishment, serving the prisoners nutra-loaf, an unpalatable food brick that contains just enough nutrition for survival. Dellelo was spared this. The rules also permitted him to have a radio after thirty days, and, after sixty days, a thirteen-inch black-and-white television.

Why is it a bad idea to throw a prisoner in “the hole” and forget about them? Because, “everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain.” Most prisoners are eventually released back to society.

Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear–not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all.

Advocates of solitary confinement assert that isolating troublemakers from the population reduces violence. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

Perhaps reducing the ridiculous, inhumane and expensive practice of prolonged isolation in solitary confinement could free up valuable resources which could use used to finance programs that would actually benefit prisons, inmates and society. We should educate prisoners and provide them meaningful work. Social interaction should be a priority and psychiatric counseling provided.

In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the states of Maine.”

Perhaps we should take a cue from the Brits.

My mother’s little brother was my favorite uncle when I was a kid. He had fast cars and beautiful girlfriends. He was cool. Now he’s serving a 19-year prison sentence. We correspond frequently. The following is from a letter I received from him yesterday:

Excuse my handwriting, I’m in the “hole” without my property and am forced to use a pen filler as a writing instrument.

Your mom visited me. It was really great to see her. Our visit was cut short by my escort to the hole. Unfortunately.

Somebody didn’t like something about me and wrote a note threatening my life. Grade school stuff, but with the fear of lawsuits, they error on the side of caution. The reason could be assumed charges, entrepreneurial spirit, or …

My uncle is in solitary confinement for his own safety and not because of anything he did. A possible reason for the note author’s threat is my uncle’s entrepreneurial successes prior to his arrest and conviction. That’s fucked up!

We need to end the runaway practice of long-term isolation of prisoners. Public opinion needs to change, which is unlikely in our American Idol culture of stupidity in which we often talk about people and not ideas.

Read the article and let me know what you think. Then send it to your friends or post it on your Facebook wall.

One Reply to “Solitary Confinement Is Stupid”

  1. This is a good, thought-provoking article. The quote about our identity being socially created by our relationships is spot on.

    Gawande stated in the article, “Without social interaction the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.” I found this significant and compelling.

    He said, “One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction…Evidence from a number of studies has shown that super-max conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released.”

    Releasing prisoners back into society without proper rehabilitation is damaging both to society and to themselves. Solitary confinement is definitely counterproductive and disastrous.

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