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Solitary Confinement: A Punishment with Permanent Consequences

Solitary confinement is an incarceration norm in the United States and around the world, as prisoners are locked away and left to their own devices for days on end. Though this practice has mostly been commonplace and a part of the American criminal justice ethic for the better part of three centuries, some have questioned whether this is the future of criminal justice in America. Solitary confinement, it seems, has psychological effects that have previously been unknown and given this information, some argue that the practice is inhumane or in violation of the sixth amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Solitary confinement breaks down the mind’s ability to function and in the process, it does long-term, often irreparable damage to prisoners. Those prisoners, many of whom are later released at the end of their sentence, are afflicted with a new mental disability as a result of their time in solitary confinement. This can have dangerous effects on communities and it can lead to higher rates of recidivism among these prisoners. Given the accumulated knowledge that the scientific community now has on the long-term effects of solitary confinement, it is clear that this practice raises ethical and practical questions. It will, in the next ten to twenty years, force various states and the federal government to choose whether they want to continue with an inhumane practice that could leave communities with a new danger that has been wholly caused by incarceration policies that some might consider barbaric.

In order to understand the situation, one must have a background on the current situation with solitary confinement. It remains a popular practice across the United States, as prisoners are held in prison units that are conveniently coined “maximum security.” Prisoners can be sent to maximum security – or “Supermax” – units for a number of different reasons, including perceived current dangerousness, the nature of their crime, or if they are believed to be organizing crime inside of prison (Mears & Reisig, 2006). As Mears and Reisig (2006) describe, individuals can even spend extended time in solitary confinement if they are thought the be at-risk for sexual abuse or beating in the general prison population. This practice, deemed “protective custody” in some states, purports to work for the benefit of the prisoner. One example comes from Louisiana, where, as the Associated Press writes, a man has been in solitary confinement for forty-one years (Associated Press, 2013). That man was convicted of murdering a prison guard under questionable circumstances and as a member of the famed “Angola Three,” he has drawn attention from around the world for spending more than four decades locked up in a prison cell by himself. His story is, unfortunately, un-extraordinary when one considers that this practice takes place around the country under different names. As AllGov (2013) points out, many facilities stop short of advertising their actual systems, choosing instead to refer to themselves as “control units” and “maximum security facilities”. Estimates from that site and others put the total number of solitary confinement prisoners in America at close to 80,000 and many of those people serve decades under those sorts of conditions (, 2013). Though this makes up just over two-percent of the total American prison population, it still represents a large enough chunk of human capital that it is worth the attention of the public and of people who are charged with making responsible decisions for communities.

Psychological research suggests that solitary confinement, as a practice, can break down the sensory functions of inmates after even a short time. Haney and Lynch (1997) suggest that human contact is an important function for keeping the senses intact and when that human contact is barred or prohibited, inmates can lose their ability to function properly. The problem, it seems, is that human beings need to interact with other human beings in order to maintain their memory function, their cognitive ability, and their social intelligence skills. Things like empathy and the capacity to communicate are all sharpened and developed by human experience, and when prisons deny that experience to prisoners, the effects can be difficult to swallow. Evidence has shown that these prison setups are psychologically dangerous for both at-risk prisoners – those who already have mental health issues – and prisoners who are otherwise healthy from a mental health perspective. Not only can being locked in solitary cause continued deterioration for people who have existing issues, but it can cause people with no mental health issues to develop significant long-term problems. This is why many have argued that these solutions, no matter what problems they are purporting to fix, are actually creating more problems of their own. If prison is designed to punish and to make society safer, then solitary confinement, it can be argued, is actually counter to the goals of the combined criminal justice effort that is out there today.

Simply saying that solitary confinement can have dangerous consequences for the human mind does not go far enough, as more is known now about the actual changes that this practice can have on individuals. The effects are specific, tangible, and easily observed in those cases where people have been put into solitary for many years on end. The problems can be separated into two categories. First there are issues that can present problems to society based upon notions of cruelty and fairness. If the criminal justice system is supposed to avoid punishments that are cruel and unusual, then it must be on the lookout for any evidence that a practice can cause long-term, major psychological damage to prisoners. These are factors that primarily impact the prisoner alone, but even though they are not things that could lead to future dangerousness, they still deserve attention in the debate over solitary confinement. The second category of factors includes those that might influence whether a prisoner is more dangerous upon release. These factors matter because solitary confinement is not simply limited to individuals who are locked away on death row. Rather, this practice is used on people who are going to, at some point, be released back into the general population. This means that society has an interest in ensuring that these people are not more dangerous when they leave prison than when they entered it. Even if the American criminal justice system is unable to rehabilitate people in a way that makes them less dangerous upon re-entry into society, it has a duty to ensure that it is not creating more danger for society by using a given practice. The psychological factors listed in this second category can influence a person’s behavior when he or she is given an opportunity to re-enter society at a later date.

The first factor, which could be seen as a cruel and unusual question, is the extreme anxiety that prisoners get when they are locked away in solitary confinement. Studies suggest that those prisoners who are locked away in solitary confinement often experience levels of anxiety that are similar to those who have gone through extreme trauma (Haney, 2003). Cockrell (2013) suggests that one of the primary problems with solitary confinement is the psychological toll exacted by long-term isolation from human contact. According to that research (2013), inmates suffer physical deterioration, psychological alteration, and cognitive impairment. Though researchers have not gone so far as to suggest that locking people up in this way gives them some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), researchers describe a situation that is not too dissimilar from what individuals go through when they have been in a vehicle accident or in war (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008). Prisoners are afflicted with life-altering grief and given no resources to cope with this feeling. Far from being the kind of situation that might lead a prisoner to reflectiveness, it is, instead, the sort of arrangement that can further deteriorate the mental faculties of a person who has already made a grave mistake at some point in the past.

In addition, the research suggests that solitary confinement can produce a sort of dullness or flatness to prisoners, depriving them of their sensory emotions (Grassian, 2006). These prisoners are not physically put into a coma. Instead, their emotions go comatose and they lose the ability to feel. When compared to the effects of something similar to PTSD, this might not seem like serious consequences, but some have argued that this kind of deprivation of emotion is akin to torture. Some have even made the connection between this treatment and the sixth amendment, which protects people from cruel and unusual punishments (Rebman, 1999). The implication for Rebman (1999) is that doing something to alter a human being’s sensory ability is akin to depriving that person of his very soul and is, in a way, a form of high-level torture.

Other factors can impact an inmate’s dangerousness. Research shows that inmates left in solitary confinement experience increased anger (Haney, 1993). This anger can lead to the kind of criminality that society is looking to prevent. Perhaps more troubling, though, is the research that suggests that solitary confinement causes a breakdown in impulse control for those who are left there for an extended period of time (Lovell, Cloves, Allen, & Rhodes, 2000). The inability to control one’s emotions and actions seems like a perfect cocktail for future dangerousness. Because of this, it can easily be argued that solitary confinement makes some criminals much more dangerous when they leave prison than they were when they first stepped into a maximum security lockup situation.

It is important to note that prisons are run by human beings. When wardens and prison guards are given the almost unlimited power that comes with running a supermax unit, there exists the possibility of abuse. Tapley (2010) suggests that prison guards inflict psychological damage on inmates. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the evidence of physical beatings by guards on vulnerable prisoners. Tapley’s research (2010) shows prison guards kicking, kneeing, and punching inmates in supermax prisons. In addition, it shows prison guards slamming prisoners’ heads against the wall and inflicting abuse while prisoners are handcuffed and helpless. In addition to the other psychological effects of being locked in supermax, these prisoners can experience signs of post-traumatic stress disorder depending upon the severity and frequency of the beatings.

Some may say that these arrangements are necessary in an age of increased prisoner dangerousness. One study, however, found that solitary confinement setups, while presumably designed to keep dangerous prisoners out of the general prison population, are not really in response to an actual harm (Kurki & Morris, 2001). By that, it is meant that prisoners do not appear to be any more dangerous now than they have been in the past, when maximum security prisons were not the norm. Those authors suggest that other motives are in play, as the politics of punishment have become quite rewarding for those state and federal legislators who have been willing to enact harsh criminal reforms (Kurki & Morris, 2001).

Solitary confinement is a concept that has become popular in America, as politicians have scored political points for being “tough on crime.” Recent research suggests, though, that this practice is dangerous in its own right. It deprives prisoners of their constitutional rights, and in the process, it creates a more dangerous world for all. Supermax prisons remain a major part of the problem, and given that they have shown no ability to hold prisoners without subjecting those prisoners to unconstitutional and unethical treatment, they should be shut down.

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