Image provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, retrieved from nbcnews.com
'Solitary confinement’ is a phrase that many people who are not and have never been incarcerated have heard, but do not think much about. They don’t really know what it means, or what people in long-term solitary confinement go through both physically and psychologically. They just know that some prisoners are separated from the rest of the prison, presumably for doing something wrong. This is not always the case, though. Sometimes prisoners are held in solitary confinement simply because of overcrowding in the rest of the prison. All of this is not to say that no one unassociated with prisons know what it is, but prisons generally do not advertise the negative effects solitary confinement has on prisoners.
Image provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, retrieved from nbcnews.com
Solitary confinement cells range from the size of an average Porta-Potty to about the size of a school bus (Dawson 2014). Cells include a bed, desk, chair, and toilet which are all fixed to the floor. They sometimes include a television with minimal channels. Many do not even have windows, but prisoners are kept there, alone, for 22-24 hours per day. They are dependent on their guards, who push food, mail, and toilet paper through a slot in the door of their cells.
The only interaction inmates are allowed with other people are with these guards who, to understate things, do not treat them very well. Inmates in solitary confinement can talk to other prisoners, but only if they shout through their cell doors or walls. Some are let out of their cells for an hour or two to shower and/or exercise, but this is not always the case. Even if they are let out, it is often only while wearing handcuffs and shackles and under constant supervision by at least one guard.
This type of environment drives people crazy. Humans are social creatures and need to interact with other people to keep their mental states intact. Long-term solitary confinement seems to make many mental illnesses worse, if not cause the onset of new ones. Prisoners often suffer from depression, apathy, hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, dissociation, and psychosis, just to name a few (Gawande 2009; Rhodes 2005). Those in long-term solitary also report they have difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory. They may have trouble sleeping, dizziness, heart palpitations, or become violent (Gawande 2009).
Photograph by Dan Winters, retrieved from gq.com
In this way, one thing solitary confinement is supposed to deter—violence—is actually caused by it. One study in Washington State found that 10% to 15% of the state’s prison population was mentally ill, and another, similar study found that 20%
to 25% of supermaximum security solitary confinement prisoners were mentally ill. This huge difference is partially because when prisons run out of beds in their psychiatric facilities, they house mentally ill patients in solitary confinement, and partially because solitary confinement breaks people psychologically (Rhodes 2005).
Let me try to put into perspective how terrible conditions are for people living in solitary confinement. The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch, put himself in solitary confinement to see what it was like. He was having doubts that solitary confinement was working like it was supposed to, so he decided he would test it out himself. After just twenty hours, he was so troubled by the experience that he let himself out. This year, he succeeded in ending long-term solitary confinement in Colorado. In 2015, the State Department and other United Nations countries ruled that keeping someone in solitary confinement for more than 15 days was torture (Raemisch 2017). So, why, then, do we still allow (and sometimes even encourage) prisons to keep their prisoners in solitary confinement for decades?
People’s answers to this question can be monotonous and contain multiple perceptions with biased opinions. Let’s steer away from opinions before we find ourselves talking in circles and accomplishing nothing, while others suffer in isolation due to our disingenuous discourse. To avoid such disingenuous discourse, I suggest we start with trying to understand humanity, beginning with humanity’s biological “fight or flight” instinct and its relation to one’s “comfort zone”
One reason we allow oppression to persist is because of our own self-interest. Our value system is based on economic safety, which drives our emotional interest toward utilitarianism. Based on this emotional drive, we can see how economic interest best serves self-interest. Distancing ourselves from policy that affects the less fortunate strengthens the overall interest pertaining to the greater good of the most fortunate. Assuming this to be true, there’s no interest in prisoners unless you are one, you have some association to individuals in the industrial prison system, or you legislate the bureaucratic prisons system. If you are a prisoner or have a loved one who is, the interest is evident. They are motivated by one day seeing the prisoner’s release as well as making sure their well-being is being looked after. Politicians and private industries have a sociopolitical and economic interest in prisons, and thus prisoners are commodities to them. As commodities go, prisoners are the bedrock of the capitalist system.
Aside from the sociopolitical parties, a majority of society is complicit in the ideals and implementation of solitary confinement. Our self-interest allows solitary confinement to be the norm behind prison walls because it is within our comfort zone. Amongst the disingenuous murmurs, we justify our arguments by saying solitary confinement provides an added level of protection for the public, offers prison safety, and aids in reformation of prisoners’ characters. This is simply not true, because as mentioned earlier, studies show that solitary confinement overwhelmingly makes the prisoner more violent. However, this argument doesn’t contain the moral and ethical might that is needed to conjure some emotional blitz. The emotional detachment in society are the results of self-interest, which affects the whole by deconstructing a cohesive into an individual with his or her own self-interest. This interest satisfies a hierarchy of needs, thus changing his or her level of comfort. As long as this comfort is undisturbed we are more than happy with going along with the status quo. Discussing the abolishment of solitary confinement disrupts the status quo.
Most of us don’t want to fight, so flight is the easiest recourse. The temptation to be different poses that you much jump out of your comfort zone, pending your stamina. Tackling the issue of solitary confinement is the starting point prompting prison reform to the finish line. While tackling the issue of solitary confinement, we are metaphorically asking the body (society) to “fight” rather than the easier “flight” response. When society fights for change, things can get ugly.
The human nervous system will respond as if immediate threat is upon it; the body tenses up and spends a quick amount of energy to oppose forces restricting its movement in space. Spending this energy has to come to an end, however, because they body cannot sustain this trauma. Once the energy is spent, the body goes back into a relaxed state triggered by exhaustion or lack of stimuli. The reality of discussing solitary confinement issues correspond with the cause and effects represented by the human nervous system. Once that relaxed state is achieved, the comfort zone resumes even if the aftermath is ugly, because the stimulus is no longer there or inert. Recently, we’ve experienced this phenomenon in the forms of state elections, a five-day news cycle that reported problems with overpopulated prisons, unemployment dropping to 4%, and after a newly released prisoner committed a heinous crime while under parole supervision.
The latter example is also an example of the “I told you so” phenomenon. As a result, all of the fight is exasperated and old ideas to prevent traumatic events reemerge like the “walking dead,” clawing up from beneath the scourged earth.
A variable of comfort is “flight.” On one hand, flight is pushing our emotional environment further away from traumatic thoughts—prisoners suffering from depression and/or hypersensitivity to external stimuli due to solitary confinement—therefore enforcing our state of rest. On the other hand, we are also isolated and cannot achieve real growth because staying in flight smothers the growth of the sprout from the scourged earth. The only way to achieve growth is to move from the graveyard of sterile ideas and challenge our resilience by being uncomfortable.
When we are at peace with our decisions as a society—changing policies based on reoccurring symptoms—the same is reflected as an illusion of security unlikely to spur motivation. Here entails the contradiction between peace with our decisions and comfort within our decisions. Peace is a fruition constituted by growth, and comfort is a state of rest lacking motivation. The lack of motivation continues to restrict genuine prison reform as it relates to solitary confinement.
Dawson, L. (2014, December 19). Infographic: How Big is a Solitary Confinement Cell?
Retrieved November 13, 2017, from http://solitarywatch.com/resources/multimedia/infographics-2/how-big-is-a-solitary-confinement-cell/
Gawande, A. (2009, March 30). Hellhole. The New Yorker.
Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. (2014, March 1). [Photograph found in Movement to End
Solitary Confinement Gains Force]. Retrieved November 14, 2017, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/movement-end-solitary-confinement-gains-force-n38521
Raemisch, R. (2017, October 12). Why We Ended Long-Term Solitary Confinement in
Colorado. The New York Times.
Rhodes, Lorna A. (2005) “Pathological Effects of the Supermaximum Prison.” American Journal
of Public Health, vol. 95, no. 10, Oct. 2005, pp. 1692–1695.,
Winters, D. (2017, March 2). Untitled [Photograph found in Buried Alive: Stories From Inside
Solitary Confinement]. Retrieved November 14, 2017, from https://www.gq.com/story/buried-alive-solitary-confinement