When Solitary Confinement Becomes Torture

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What would you think about a pet owner who locked up his cat or dog in a tiny room for 23 hours a day?  For a month, a year, five years?  Would you accuse that owner of cruel and unusual treatment?  Yet, thousands of humans are treated this way in our correctional systems, many for prolonged periods of time.  About 25,000 federal and state inmates are held in solitary confinement in supermax prisons in units called SHUs—security housing units—and another 80,000 inmates are housed in isolation cells in regular prisons and jails. 

Most prisoners in solitary confinement spend more than five years there.  Some have been held in solitary confinement for decades.

Supermax prisons were created to contain the “worst of the worst”—the real-life Hannibal Lecters who are deemed unfit to mingle in the general prison population.  But the practice of indiscriminately isolating problem inmates has grown to the point where solitary confinement is used to punish inmates for routine infractions and many inmates who are hard to control because of their mental problems are routinely locked away in isolation units.  Solitary confinement is increasingly used to isolate juveniles who are considered uncontrollable.


Most inmates are kept in 60 to 80 square-foot cells.  Most are bare, with a concrete or metal slab for sleeping.  Most inmates are denied access to reading materials, and other forms of distraction.  They are fed rotted food.  The common core of the experience is 22 to 23 hours in a cell with little or no human contact.  They are let out of their cells for an isolated shower and for a walk in a concrete-walled recreational area.  Their only human contact might be the officer who shackles them.

Although there is little dispute that extended stays in solitary confinement result in long-term psychological and emotional damage, America’s courts are reluctant to decree that its use violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. However, courts have ruled recently that placing mentally-ill inmates in solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment and many critics of solitary confinement believe its use is especially damaging to the psyches of adolescents.

Congressman Cedric Richmond, a Democrat representing Louisiana’s second district thinks it’s time we take a thorough look at how solitary confinement is used in federal and state prisons.  Last month, he introduced H.R. 4618—the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014—to create a commission to study and collect data on the use of the controversial practice.  The bill has 22 co-sponsors and was referred to the Judiciary Committee.  None of the seven social workers in the House has signed on as yet.

You don’t have to be soft on crime to want to reduce the use of solitary confinement.  It is a dehumanizing experience and should be used sparingly if at all.  Internationally, it is considered a form of torture. The American Correctional Association—the oldest and largest correctional association in the world—in its 1959 Manual of Correction Standards instructed that solitary confinement should be used only briefly, and only as a last resort.

Like the practice of mass incarceration has gotten out of control, so has the use of solitary confinement.   Although we count for five percent of the world’s population, we lock up 25 percent of the world’s population—about 2.4 million inmates populate federal and state prisons and jails on a given day.  The first supermax prison was opened in Marion, Illinois in 1984.  There are now supermax prisons in 44 states.  Pelican Bay State Prison in California is considered one of the most egregious.  More than 500 of Pelican Bay’s SHU prisoners have been held in solitary confinement in the SHU for over 10 years. Over 78 prisoners have languished in solitary for more than 20 years.

What we have learned from this experiment in mass incarceration is that we have damaged millions of our fellow citizens—physically, emotionally, and economically.  We can argue whether or not the punishment has fit the crime but we have paid a huge price.  It is enormously expensive to put so many people behind bars and keep them there.  We have rendered many of them permanent burdens on our society and placed many of their children at the risk of following in their footsteps.  It is time we rethink our criminal justice policies.

Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D

When Solitary Confinement Becomes Torture was originally published @ Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy » Charles Lewis and has been syndicated with permission.

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  1. OutURmind OutURmind March 18, 2015

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