Why Is the US Still Using Solitary Confinement?

Something rather astounding happened in 2011: prisoners went on strike, and people paid attention. A hunger strike over conditions in California prisons that started at Pelican Bay, the state’s notorious supermax facility infamous for its use of solitary confinement, spread across the state, attracting headlines and attention across the country. Not just in prison media, but also in progressive media and slowly in mainstream publications as well. Here were prisoners so desperate for better conditions that they were willing to risk their health and in some cases their lives to force people to look at them, to push for a change in the system.

One consequence of the hunger strike was an increased awareness of prison issues, though that awareness is still nowhere near where it should be. Part and parcel of that awareness was a growing understanding of the use of solitary confinement in prisons across the United States, not just in California, drawing attention to a debate that’s been seething for well over a decade in spaces dedicated to prison reform. Why is solitary confinement still in use? And why aren’t more people up in arms about it?

Many people are not aware of the extent to which solitary confinement is used, and how it actually works, unless they’re prison advocates. At any given point in time, around 100,000 US prisoners are in solitary confinement, which is a rather significant number, especially when you consider the fact that the inequalities at work in terms of who enters the justice system also determine who ends up in solitary confinement.

Life in solitary confinement, some argue, is torture, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Spending days, weeks, months, and sometimes years isolated from human contact is a huge emotional strain, and it’s not helped by the fact that prisoners in solitary have limited access to other forms of enrichment, to health care, to other basic needs. There’s a reason many prisoners who’ve experienced solitary develop exacerbations of existing mental health conditions, and why suicide attempts, self-harm, and other psychiatric issues are a perennial problem for prisoners locked away, isolated from contact with the outside world. It’s torture, and it’s telling that the use of solitary confinement arose in the United States in the 19th century as a form of forced penitence intended to make prisoners think upon their sins. And it was ultimately abandoned because prison administrators saw what it did to prisoners, and felt it wasn’t an effective tool. It wasn’t until the 1980s that some enterprising people thought it was a good idea to start using solitary again.

It would be nice to pretend that the United States has come a long way from 19th century ideas about the justice system and the function of prisons, let alone 19th century methods of managing prison populations, yet apparently it hasn’t. And the ways in which solitary confinement are used are deeply twisted; this is not isolation, as some people seem to think it is, for prisoners who act out and are a danger to themselves or others, used for a few days of ‘cooling off’ (though that, too, would be torture). Instead, it’s used as a surprisingly routine punishment for even minor infractions, it’s used to isolate minority prisoners, it’s used to house prisoners whom guards don’t like and don’t want to deal with.

When people speak of ‘locking up and throwing away the key,’ solitary confinement may come to mind; the ultimate punishment, deprived of human contact in almost all forms and forced to sit stewing in silence. What seems to be missed here, though, is that the prisoner is also being thrown away like so much garbage, tossed into the hole to sit and wait. If the prisoner emerges intact, so be it, but if the prisoner develops severe physical or psychiatric problems as a result of confinement, no one’s going to be unduly fussed about it. And, it seems, no one is going to question whether such punishment is even appropriate in the first place.

There have been slow gains in terms of making people more aware of what solitary is, how it is used, and why it’s a problem, to the point of op-eds in The New York Times and commentaries in other prominent media. More and more people are aware that it’s an issue, yet they shy away from learning more about it, let alone protesting it, or finding out how they can do more to combat the use of solitary confinement in their regions and across the country. Why are people so reluctant to face solitary confinement and explore what the prison system does in their name? And why are they so hesitant to condemn it, and to engage with it in public spaces to make the conversation unavoidable for those who don’t understand the depths of the problem?

Groups like the ACLU put pressure on individual state prison systems through lawsuits and other tools, pushing for reform, but it’s clear that individual residents of this country also need to be involved in the cries for reform within the prison system. Better systems need to be in place for evaluating prison management and abolishing practices like solitary confinement; because this is a practice that needs to end. It has no applications, no appropriate uses, no justification.

There may be cases in which prisoners need to be isolated for their safety or that of others, but housing them in solitary confinement is not the appropriate way to do that, and it is past time for the United States to admit that. This era must end, and that includes not just changing conditions in prisons, but also pushing for sentencing reforms and other adjustments to the system to address issues like prison overcrowding; because with too many prisoners trapped inside the US justice system, abuses are all too easy.