‘Solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness,” testified Dr. Craig Haney, the nation’s leading expert in penal institution psychology, last June at the first-ever Congressional hearing to confront the alarming increase of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Last month the Federal Bureau of Prisons acknowledged this danger when it announced that the National Institute of Corrections will conduct the first-ever comprehensive and independent assessment of the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons in the United States. This marks an important step toward ending the use of prolonged solitary confinement in all U.S. prisons.
Solitary confinement—also referred to as isolation, “the hole,” permanent lockdown or segregated, restricted or supermax housing—is the practice of holding prisoners in small, windowless cells for 23 or 24 hours a day. There is little or no human contact and minimal access to rehabilitative services and medical and mental health treatment. Contrary to popular belief, the use of solitary confinement is neither the best way nor the only way to control the most violent prisoners. Furthermore, it is increasingly being used as a punishment for violating prison rules, even minor, nonviolent infractions, or as a behavioral control mechanism for the mentally ill. Who goes to the hole, and for how long, is often decided with little or no due process.
In 1989 California became the first state to build a supermax prison (Pelican Bay), a facility built for long-term solitary confinement. Today at least 25,000 prisoners are held in supermax facilities in the United States, and as many as 80,000 others are held in restricted housing units elsewhere—sometimes for months, years or decades. In Pelican Bay the average stay for a person in the Security Housing Unit is seven and a half years. Nearly 100 prisoners at Pelican have been in solitary for more than 20 years.
Human beings are by nature social beings who require human contact for their psychological health and development. Studies have shown that prolonged isolation actually changes how the brain works and can result in impairments and abnormalities akin to a traumatic injury. Psychological effects can include auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, self-mutilation, insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, post-traumatic stress disorder and an increased risk of suicide. Most prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which includes 314 religious organizations as members, has led the way in educating people of faith about the damaging consequences of prolonged solitary confinement, the urgent moral questions it raises and the need to abolish its use in U.S. prisons. “Prolonged solitary confinement is torture in your backyard,” says the campaign’s Web site, and its use “violates the inherent, God-given dignity and worth of every person.” In 2000 the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on crime and criminal justice that stated their opposition to “the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due process.”
The U.N. Convention Against Torture, ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1994, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” by a public official in order to obtain information, punish, coerce or discriminate against the person. The use of prolonged solitary confinement meets this standard and should be immediately abolished. It also violates the spirit of the U.S. Constitution’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishments.” Juan E. Méndez, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, has said that “solitary confinement should be used only in very exceptional circumstances, for as short a time as possible.” While some mental damage can result from just a few days of isolation, Mr. Méndez explained, “Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of 15 days, should also be subject to an absolute prohibition.”
In order to confront the problem of prison violence, the focus must shift from punishment to prevention. Great Britain did just this, beginning in the 1980s, with impressive results. Instead of using humiliation and confrontation, which only made things worse, the British reduced the use of solitary confinement and allowed their most dangerous prisoners to have more opportunities for work, education, programming and mental health treatment. As a result, the need for solitary confinement in British prisons became negligible. The National Institute of Corrections, which will conduct the assessment of U.S. federal prisons, has already helped Mississippi reduce its restricted housing population by 75 percent and prison violence by 50 percent. Other federal and state prisons should follow suit. Respect for the human dignity of prisoners demands no less.