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Solitary Confinement: Cruel, but Not Unusual?


An estimated 103 prisoners have been on a hunger strike for well over three months at the American prison called Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba). The protesters seem willing to die rather than live in the savage conditions that some of them have endured for a decade without so much as being charged with a crime.

Human rights organizations around the world have classified the conditions at Gitmo as torture. Commentators have focused on the bitter irony that torture is now an official policy of the nation whose Bill of Rights outlaws “cruel and unusual punishments.”

But at least one of the types of torture at Gitmo has deep roots in American history and wide usage in today’s prisons: solitary confinement. As a deliberate, long-term strategy to mold the psyche of prisoners, solitary confinement was pioneered in post-Revolutionary America, and it has remained commonplace within America’s prison system. One reason the torture at Gitmo is tolerated, and even praised, could be because some forms of it have been embraced for centuries.

The torture of solitary confinement

“Solitary confinement” refers to placing a prisoner in isolation in order to discipline, protect, restrain, or more easily process him. There are two basic types of solitary confinement: temporary and extended. It is the latter form that is called torture.

The typical confinement cell is tiny, no more than a few paces across in any direction. The detainee is often caged for 23 out of 24 hours, with one hour slotted for the solitary exercise of walking in another confined area; when prisons are understaffed, the exercise periods may be skipped. There is no mail, no television, and no other communication with the outside world beyond permitted visitors. If the prisoner is lucky enough to have a patch of sunlight, it comes through small barred windows. If he is truly lucky, the narrow bed will have blankets, the toilet will work, and filth will not accumulate in the corners.

As America becomes more inured to torture, the practice of isolating juveniles in particular seems to be spreading.

According to an April 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),

There are more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement in the United States. Last week, the widespread misuse and abuse of solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the country drew international condemnation when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights … criticized the United States following weeks of hearings on human rights practices across the Americas.

Those under 18 years old are particularly vulnerable to solitary confinement. This is a relatively recent development. In late 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch issued a 141-page report entitled Growing Up Locked Down. It pointed to a perceived rise in violent juvenile crime in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. This “led to a proliferation of new legal mechanisms for subjecting children to criminal trial and punishment as if they were adults. The stated goal of most of these policies was deterrence through retributive punishment: ‘adult time for adult crime.’”

It is difficult to know how many juveniles are in solitary, because the penal system is convoluted and opaque. The prison-reform group Equal Justice Initiative estimates that about 3000 children “have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” But that is a small fraction of all children tried as adults, and it does not necessarily correlate with solitary confinement. Fortunately, activists and the general public are starting to demand answers. This led, last June, to the first-ever congressional hearing on the practice.

The hearing focused on children, because of the extraordinary psychological damage that isolation can inflict on them.

Children as young as 13 years old can be housed in adult prisons. Inside, they are at high risk for physical or sexual abuse. And so, after creating a dangerous situation, the prison system makes it worse by using solitary confinement as “protection.” At other times, the system simply does not seem to know how to handle adolescents who act out (or who merely act like adolescents). A 15-year-old who was profiled in Growing Up Locked Down claimed that he received “15 days for not making the bed; 15 days for not keeping the cell door open; 20 or 25 days for being in someone else’s cell.”

An older prisoner, who was placed in long-term confinement for refusing to “give up” nonexistent gang members, offered a glimpse into the effects of long-term isolation. After three years in solitary, he said,

My psyche had changed. I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.

There’s a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening. A sound so loud you expect to find blood leaking from your ears at the bleakest moment.

America, a pioneer in solitary confinement

In 1787, the noted physician and Quaker Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) established the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons; it is reputed to be the earliest prison-reform group in the world.

The society began to implement their penological methods on prisoners in the Walnut Street Jail, which was located behind Independence Hall. Conditions in the jail were wretched, but the society sought to do much more than ease the suffering of prisoners; it wanted to alter the underlying theories of the penal system itself. The society’s methods would later be known as the Pennsylvania System.

According to the principles of this system, crime was a moral disease to be cured through a moral reformation. Prisoners were to be reformed through a solitary confinement that encouraged penitence and through hard labor in their cells. When a penitentiary house consisting of 16 single cells was built within the Walnut Street Jail, America had taken its first step on the path to total and extended solitary confinement.

In 1821, the society received approval from the Pennsylvania legislature to build the new Eastern State Penitentiary with 250 cells. Their first jail had been so crowded that only major offenders could be isolated. The new, much larger, prison was similar in design to the Panopticon — a “model” prison conceived by the British social theorist Jeremy Bentham. In the new penitentiary, blocks of cells emanated in a circular manner from a central hub so that a well-placed guard could observe the prisoners at all times. Meanwhile, they could not see each other.

When the penitentiary opened in 1829, its first prisoner was led to his cell with a hood over his head. Thus, he would have no knowledge of the prison beyond his cell, which was about 16 feet high, 12 feet long, and 7.5 feet wide. Each cell had an attached and self-contained exercise yard that prevented even passing contact between prisoners. For his two-year sentence, the first prisoner would communicate only with guards through a small feeding hole or with a handful of visitors. He had a Bible and whatever work he was given to do — nothing else.

The Eastern State Penitentiary was viewed as the most innovative prison of its day, and interest in it quickly spread through Europe. Even before construction was completed, the famed French general and politician the Marquis de Lafayette toured the facility.

In 1831, the French social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville did the same. In the formal report he and a coauthor provided to the French government, they exclaimed,

Thrown into solitude … [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.… Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness.…

By contrast, when Charles Dickens visited in 1842, he was highly critical. A chapter in his later-published travel journal explained why. “The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” Dickens did not question the intentions of the penitentiary’s designers, but he was convinced that “those benevolent gentleman … do not know what it is that they are doing.… I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Many Americans came to agree with Dickens. The Pennsylvania System was slowly replaced by what was called “the Auburn System,” which diluted some aspects of the solitary confinement. The new system enforced confinement only at night, work during the day, and silence at all times.

Solitary confinement in America today

The ACLU has called upon Attorney General Eric Holder to ban the solitary confinement of juveniles as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But this is the same attorney general who insists that the waterboarding of Gitmo prisoners is not a form of “torture.” He is unlikely to give ground on another cruel practice.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been targeted by influential media outlets such as National Public Radio. NPR recently pointed to mounting evidence that solitary confinement causes mental problems.

The prison bureau has also received persistent pressure from relatives of children who died or were harmed in custody. In her ACLU-sponsored petition, one mother, Vicky Gunderson, pleads,

As a mother, not being able to hug and comfort my son when he was alone in a concrete box was like the worst form of hell. Knowing our son Kirk ended his own life while being held in solitary confinement, after he requested to not be left alone … I cannot describe that to you. Kirk was only 17. It was two days after Christmas.

Kirk Gunderson had been transferred to solitary for breaking a rule against possessing materials that could be used to self-tattoo.

The prison bureau recently agreed to conduct the first-ever review of its policies on solitary confinement. And some states, like Florida, are considering new restrictions on the practice of confining children in solitary. Sadly, that will not be enough to save children from dying in boxes.

And what about the adults in solitary? Recognizing forced isolation for what it is — torture — would at least be a step in the right direction. And that recognition is likely to come easier and faster when the person being tortured is a child.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).