Social Justice Matters: Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is one among many tools used for social control in the US prison system, but it’s something that bears particularly close examination because it is perhaps one of the most clear examples of how prisoners are abused in the name of ‘maintaining order’ and ‘keeping prisons safe’ and it is considered by many to be one of the harshest penalties used in the prison system, after the death penalty. Prisoners are placed in solitary confinement, we are assured, because they exhibit behavioural problems and need to be isolated; there’s no alternative, prisons claim, when it comes to certain kinds of behaviours. The isolation of prisoners is deemed acceptable as a disciplinary tool in the same way that so many things are, because people seem to believe that prisoners give up most (if not all) human rights.

Prisoners can spend up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, isolated from all contact with other human beings, sometimes for years. Sometimes they are left in complete darkness. Entertainment is left outside. Prisoners are alone with themselves and nothing else in a narrow, confined space. They may not be allowed outdoors and they receive scanty medical care; as discussed previously, access to medical care in prison is predicated on many things, and need is not very high on the list. Guards get to decide when prisoners should receive treatment and on what terms. Imagine having a mental health condition exacerbated by being in confined, isolated spaces. Now imagine not being able to call your therapist.

For many of us, the idea of being isolated in solitary is probably one of the most terrifying things we can think of. Even I, a person who enjoys solitude immensely, feel rather cold and sweaty at the thought of being locked into a dark room without any opportunities for human contact, without my books, without the familiar sights and sounds and smells of the environment around me. It is an abhorrent thing to imagine, yet we tolerate the idea when it involves prisoners being placed in just this environment, despite the fact that it has been considered torture.

Some may consider it an extreme, but necessary, punishment. If that’s the case, one should consider the kinds of infractions that land people in solitary confinement, and how long people are kept in solitary. ‘Behavioural infractions’ are a large catch-all and they can range from fighting to looking at a guard the wrong way. Needless to say, factors contributing to things like fighting are not considered; the prison environment is dangerous, it is stressful, and people are pushed to their limits there. People penalised for ‘fighting’ may not actually have been fighting, may have been acting in self defense, may have been forced to assert themselves for safety.

Very rarely are prisoners who have spent time in solitary given a voice.

Rather than exploring the origins of behaviours deemed undesirable, the perpetrators that can be identified are punished. This doesn’t necessarily include everyone engaging in said behaviour, only the people who can be caught, who are spotted by guards. And just as biases can be seen in how people are treated on the outside, what kind of behaviour police officers and other members of law enforcement allow to slide and what kinds of people are watched intently for any signs of ‘bad behaviour,’ biases can also be seen in prisons when it comes to who is penalised and who is not, who is caught and who is not, what the guards see and what they do not see.

There are also reports in some prisons that people who are in danger are placed in solitary confinement because it’s the only safe place for them, that some people actually actively request it for safety. That prisons cannot keep their general population safe is a travesty and a human rights violation, and that the only way to keep some people safe is to force them into isolation is horrific. Prisoners identified as in danger and prisoners coming forward to seek assistance and protection are commonly people with disabilities, transgender prisoners, prisoners of colour, and pushing them into solitary confinement is a reflection of how they are treated by society at large, locked away and hidden ‘for their own protection’ by a society that refuses to deal with its problems, just like prisons refuse to deal with theirs.

Functionally, this can mean that people under extreme stress who develop reactions like being aggressive to protect themselves can be thrown into solitary confinement, an environment that is even more stressful. Isolation can contribute to serious mental health issues, and for prisoners already struggling with mental health problems and already feeling the whiplash of injustice because of the way the ‘justice’ system is structured, being placed in solitary confinement can be tremendously dangerous.

I’d argue that this particular ‘punishment’ is also inhumane and barbaric, but setting that aside, if the goal of the prison system is safety, is on ‘corrections’ and preventing recidivism, the use of this particular punishment does not support that goal. Whether prisoners are placed in solitary confinement because they are deemed a threat to others or there are concerns about their safety, this is not the solution, and, for some, can create a tremendous setback in terms of mental health, and, yes, ‘behaviour,’ especially when solitary is used over and over again for ‘discipline’ of particular prisoners.

As I discussed in ‘Who Watches the Watchers?,’ there are serious problems with the handling of ‘discipline’ in the prison system. Guards are allowed to abuse prisoners, prisoners have difficulty reporting abuses, and prisons in general let a lot slide in the name of keeping order. Punishments like this one are believed to be an acceptable price to pay for peace in no small part because members of the public have made it clear that they don’t care about human rights for prisoners, and don’t care to identify specific human rights violations that should be giving all of us room for pause.