Last updated on July 15, 2022
“I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside—so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body.” (Voices from Solitary)
William Blake spent 31 years in solitary confinement, which is extreme deprivation of human contact and stimulation. Such punishment is defined by the United Nations as psychological torture, yet wielded freely in American prisons today: at a given time, more than 67,000 people are in solitary. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons have subjected more than 300,000 people to solitary confinement despite this practice increasing the rate of infection. Health experts explain that prisons should instead prioritize humane medical isolation.
Solitary confinement is an inhumane and ineffective measure that the United States must abolish, not only as a form of disease control but also as a punitive measure.
Social interaction is a basic human need. As such, the likelihood of death for prisoners increases by 26-31% in isolation. Solitary confinement can also be as psychologically distressing as physical torture. Individuals are ten times more likely to be involved in self-harm than the general prison population, and many who experience solitary confinement cannot live with others for the rest of their lives.
In the end, solitary confinement remains in the United States “more out of inertia and laziness than any kind of principle.” (New York Times)
The first American experiment with solitary confinement took place in 19th-century Philadelphia. Due to the catastrophic psychological effects, experts found this practice ineffective in rehabilitating inmates. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller noted, “…those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” (Washington Post) This punishment increases the risk that an inmate will commit more crimes, and reduces the likelihood of future employment. Solitary confinement was gradually abandoned over the next century, but surged in use over the 1980s when prisons adopted the practice of “permanent lockdown.”
How can this practice be constitutional? The Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether it violates The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment.
A violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause due to a deprivation of medical care requires two factors: 1) an inmate in an objectively serious condition and 2) prison officials who deliberately disregard harm the inmate experiences. A federal judge determined in Madrid v. Gomez that conditions of solitary confinement in Pelican Bay prison “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable.” (New York Times) Yet, he ruled that the amount of psychological harm experienced did not sufficiently fulfill the first requirement for a constitutional violation.
Scholars explain that the court should measure “cruelty” by the actual effects of the punishment, regardless of the intent of the punisher, and compare the practice with the punishment it replaces rather than only analyze the punishment on its own. Both of these would limit possible subjectivity within a ruling. With this, solitary confinement is “cruel”: studies repeatedly show the psychological and physical effects of prison are much more detrimental in solitary confinement due to social and sensory deprivation. Solitary confinement is also “unusual” due to the relatively short length of time that it has been present since the 1980s.
It is time that the United States joins the rest of the international community which has banned such a clear form of torture. National campaigns such as Unlock the Box work to advocate for prison reform, but solitary confinement has not resulted in the public outcry that would bring it to the forefront of the national agenda.