I cited this barbaric penalty in my previous blog post, which was a plea for Ashley Biden to join her father’s Administration and co-ordinate federal policy regarding mental healthcare reform. Solitary confinement in our jails is one of the scourges that most needs reforming–obliterating, actually–if we are to call ourselves civilized. Solitary works horrors on the human brain. It drives mentally ill prisoners deeper into madness, and can afflict the sanity of those who have not shown symptoms of brain disease. And it does no good whatsoever–corrective, societal, or moral. That is the widespread theory. Here is the latest glimpse of the widespread practice.
The leading Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have at long last agreed that abolishing this atrocity is an essential part of criminal-justice reform. It is up to us to hold them to their words.
When you hear or read the words “solitary confinement,” what images form in your mind?
A naughty inmate spending some time in a kind of “time out” space wearing a hang-dog expression?
A lonely prisoner in a tiny dark cell gazing at light from the slit of a window, with maybe half a bowl of dirty drinking water at his feet?
A mentally ill man who, after 112 consecutive days of solitary, has just severed his penis with a razor and flushed it down his cell’s toilet?
One of these things is not like the others.
All three images are rooted in the dark dominion of solitary confinement. Only one of them burns through the fog of euphemism and forces a reckoning with a terrible truth—in this case, one of the most perverse, destructive, and unnecessary varieties of soul-murder yet devised by man.
The topic “solitary confinement” has been raised lately (and gingerly, and fleetingly) by several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: raised as an agenda item in their calls for repairing the fissures in America’s criminal-justice system. (Criminal-justice reform is tightly intertwined with reform of our negligent systems of mental healthcare in America.)
The candidates have in turn been influenced—inspired—by the efforts of a bright new coalition of mental-health reform advocates: parents, mostly, spurred to action by the death or deep psychosis of a beloved child. Polite yet unyielding, ferociously informed, they amount to a neo-Dorothea Dix approach to getting justice for the dispossessed.
Iowa is their perfectly chosen beachhead. Not only does the state offer an early concentration of corndog-chewing candidates for them to buttonhole. Iowa City is the home of the turbo-charged advocacy team of Scott and Leslie Carpenter. Armed with an exhaustive five-point bill of particulars for mental healthcare reform compiled by the California advocate DeDe Moon Ranahan, the Carpenters essentially have brought the grass roots onto equal footing with the political elite—on this issue, at least.
But why shine the spotlight on solitary confinement when the justice reform agendas are crowded with so many other “big-ticket” demands? Cutting the U.S. prison population in half comes to mind, as do ending the notorious “cash bail” system that keeps poor young inmates locked up only because they can’t afford otherwise; or tightening up on police oversight; or legalizing marijuana; or abolishing private prisons.
Here is the reason: I sense that of all these important, difficult-to-achieve goals, the abolishing of solitary is among the easiest to bring up and then dismiss: the one most vulnerable to lip service.
And that would be a colossal shame. Stuffing sentient human beings into small, dark, fetid enclosures and leaving them there is about the worst thing it is possible to do to one’s fellow man. The American record for duration in solitary was held by a triple murderer named Thomas Silverstein, who died just last May at age 67. He’d spent more than half his life in isolation.
It borders on the impossible to find shared humanity with a monster like Silverstein. Yet traces of his humanity struggle to declare themselves like green shoots through cracked pavement. “It’s almost more humane to kill someone immediately than it is to intentionally bury a man alive,” he wrote. For one superb writer’s searching attempt, read Pete Earley’s masterful 1992 book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.
Or return for a moment to the lost soul who severed his penis with a razor. That would be the mentally ill inmate identified by his initials, J.I., a solitary inmate at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the night of September 2018, jail guards, alerted by prisoners’ shouting in a lockdown unit, rushed to the scene, where they beheld J.I., his hands and forearms bloody, who told them: “I have a real medical emergency. I just cut my penis off and flushed it down the toilet. I have no need for it anymore.”
J.I., who survived, had sat in solitary for 112 consecutive days. He’d been sent there for yelling at staff members. Records showed that guards had been negligent in monitoring his therapeutic needs. 1
Solitary is patently barbaric; bereft of any use (other than convenience and a lust for inflicting psychic pain). It is a legalized yet likely unconstitutional torture which, I have come to believe, is slightly more heinous even than the death penalty: its victims, while not dead, experience death as their own observers, existing in claustrophobic isolation and silence and darkness and decay, with no definable release awaiting them.
And so in order to tolerate it as public policy or even as a thought, some self-anesthetizing helps. (Those charged with actually imposing it on human beings presumably develop tougher psychic scar tissue.) “Solitary confinement” is a term useful for the necessary numbing: an abstraction, one of those “Orwellian” constructions that serve more to camouflage than to evoke their full, and usually terrifying implications.
That very abstraction is dangerous. It can too easily lead to evaporation.
This blog, then, is a plea to those presidential candidates who have made the abolition of solitary confinement a part of their criminal-justice reform demands: Do not let this happen. Honor the constituency that has materialized in Iowa and exists throughout the nation. Keep this issue alive.
In subsequent blogs I will trace the peculiar origins of solitary confinement in America, and will look into some of the lesser-known forms of its use—for example, as an instrument of control for juvenile inmates and even schoolchildren.
I will close this blog with a soaring testimony of hope, resilience, faith, and self-reclamation written by a former criminal and solitary inmate named Thomas Tarrants, and published in the August 19 edition of Christianity Today.2 It was sent to me by my friend, the literary scholar Harold K. Bush of St. Louis University. Thank you, amigo.
I have written about the state-enforced incarceration, torture (via solitary confinement), and medical and inhumane neglect of young Tyler West of Fruitport, Michigan, since I began this blog nearly two years ago.
I have included mention of this mentally ill, ridiculously over-prosecuted victim’s plight in nearly every talk I have given. I’ve contacted journalists, advocates, and elected federal and state officials in and around Michigan. (Senator from the neighboring state of Minnesota, sometime mental health reform advocate, and perhaps presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar, I am looking at you. https://twitter.com/amyklobuchar/status/705052728171634688
No one answers. Silence prevails among people in a position to rescue Tyler and elevate him to a national symbol of our debased mental healthcare systems: a silence as absolute as that which surrounds Tyler when he is repeatedly thrown into solitary confinement for reasons undisclosed to his parents.
No one. No one. No one, on the evidence, cares about crazy people.
It causes me lacerating psychic pain to think about Tyler West and his inexplicable Bedlam-like imprisonment. (For details, see my other blogs about Tyler on this site.) My helplessness, and his family’s helplessness, in seeking justice for him exhaust and infuriate me no end. I no longer write about him as much as I used to, as much as I should.
The one person in this world who sustains any shred of hope within me, and who inspires me to speak about about Tyler yet again, is his courageous mother, Kimberlee Cooper-West. Kimberlee is a religious and civic-minded woman; and although struggling with her own grief, she has never given up on her violated adopted son. I have quoted many times from her impassioned writing. And today, reading through the Facebook file of my colleague in advocacy Dee Dee Moon Ranahan, I came upon her latest cry from the heart. It follows below. Ms. Stabenow? Ms. Klobuchar? Detroit Free Press? National NAMI? In this season of love and charity and reverence and soul-reclamation, to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “For God’s sake . . . do your duty!”
November 8 was our son Tyler’s 20th birthday. We were unable to say “Happy Birthday” as he was in lock down for five days. Days later, we drove a little over an hour to Richard Handlon Correctional Prison in Ionia, Michigan. (Tyler is number #113697.) We had cake with him. He made a cake from two honeybuns, smashed peanut M&M’s, and a melted Snickers bar on top. He’s inventive. We sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
He’s still our boy. Few mention him. Our heart breaks for what we’ve lost. This is Tyler’s third year away for his birthday. Next, he will miss Thanksgiving and Christmas. He hasn’t been given counseling, education, training, or the proper medications. He’s been beaten up four times since he was incarcerated.
Why couldn’t mental health professionals keep him in an inpatient psychiatric hospital? For the love of God there was no good reason to release our son from the hospital. His safety was compromised. No one was responsible. He was nearly shot at for trespassing. He was an inpatient five days prior to his arrest. He was delusional and hearing voices. What is wrong with this country? Why is there no long-term treatment?
This is a brain disease, ya all. Maybe we should start locking up every grandma and grandpa who is violent or disorderly from Alzheimer’s. Serious mental illness is a disease. It is prodromal to Alzheimer’s. Prisons are corporations. Their goal is money. They need prisoners. Caught up in the system — it’s a real thing.
We are receiving a criminal justice system education. Months are now years. One caseworker, Ms. Williams, calls many people names like dumb, retarded, idiots and pedophiles. Everyone in Ty’s facility is either mentally ill or autistic. She told Tyler, a 19-year-old kid who was only supposed to be in prison for two months, “You’re doing 15 years.” It leaves me to wonder how many have given up from her words.
Ty’s not even provided an inhaler for asthma and chronic lung disease. He has autism and a serious mental illness. When he was in school he was never suspended. He was a target for bullies which was our main concern. Incarceration never crossed our minds. On his birthday, I sent his appeal papers certified to a judge. Hopefully, he will give him an appellate lawyer.
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
These were Winston Churchill’s words to the British people after General Montgomery’s forces turned back the formidable German army under General Rommel at Alamein in November 1942.
Readers of this blog know that I see our present struggle to eradicate the terrible abuses of mentally ill people in terms of a war: a war against entrenched ignorance, apathy, denial, and abject cruelty within the institutions that exist to protect all citizens, especially the most helpless. Too many caregivers, jail wardens, and state governments (among others) remain clueless or unwilling to reform the atrocities that they perpetuate.
And yet hope endures. It is important to amplify and celebrate any example of enlightened hope overcoming dark chaos.
Here are three stories, linked below, that offer hope.
The first covers the efforts of lawyers in Illinois, representing a total of 12,000 mentally ill patients, demanding from a federal judge that Illinois face up to its “state of emergency” in Illinois prisons and move to eradicate poor psychiatric care amounting to “cruel and unusual punishment.” https://goo.gl/yaSvtq
The second addresses a barbaric practice that is near the top of my personal list for drastic action, solitary confinement. Written by the executive director of the Colorado department of corrections, it explains why the state recently ended the practice of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners. Colorado now limits stays in solitary to fifteen days. In my opinion, that is fifteen days too long; but it is a significant improvement over the state’s average length of two and a half years “and sometimes for decades.” https://goo.gl/c6SqTf
The third focuses on the Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland, a nonprofit group that has existed for years but has accelerated dramatically in its outreach under its young new executive director, Elizabeth Newman. I visited the Centers on Tuesday to give a talk at their annual luncheon. My typic skepticism burned away as I experienced the Centers’ zeal, the intelligence, and the broad scope of outreach, exemplified by the remarkable Ms. Newman. I will return to the topic of the Centers in an upcoming blog. https://goo.gl/Jczmsk
For now, let us celebrate what may be the end of the beginning.
This riveting essay, written three years ago by a member of Amnesty International, remains among the most compulsively readable indictments of our most barbaric form of punishment.
By Tessa Murphy London,
14 October 2014, 16:07 UTC
Tessa Murphy is a British campaigner at Amnesty International
The breathlessness was overwhelming. Standing in that small, dark cell, surrounded by nothing but three concrete walls, a dank toilet, a small sink, a thin mattress, a concrete slab and a perforated metal door that barely let any air in, the oppressive claustrophobia was hard to control.
This was not the first time I had set foot in a US prison, but it was the first time I had experienced what an isolation cell can do to you.
Everything about that room – the lack of windows, or natural light, or fresh air, the very thought of not being allowed any human interaction – seems to be designed to dehumanise. The basic penal concept of reform and social rehabilitation is excluded inside those three walls.
In solitary, punishment is king. The mere thought of spending more than a few minutes in that place was almost unbearable.
And then, a prisoner told me and my colleague that we were the first outsiders he had seen in 22 years.
I was surprised even to be allowed into California’s infamous Pelican Bay Prison. Correctional authorities across the US are unwilling to allow anyone to see what happens behind those thick concrete walls. And with evidence that has emerged – from Pennsylvania to Arizona, of voices crying for help – it’s no wonder. Across the US, it is estimated that nearly 80,000 people are held in long-term isolation
The authorities describe the system as “secure housing units”, “administrative segregation” and even “restricted housing.” But these euphemisms do not describe the human reality of these units.
The departments of corrections claim only prisoners who are a threat to guards or to other inmates are placed in isolation, after all other measures to control them fail. But as indicated by the tens of thousands detained, isolation cells are routinely used as punishment for minor offences such as disrespecting a prison guard or disobeying an order. In California, for example, suspected gang members can be placed in those dimly lit cells, just for having a calendar with Mayan symbols, or certain tattoos, or for being in the possession of books or other “source items” – or just for speaking to a “validated” inmate.
America’s prison isolation regime is not unusual, but it is cruel. Prisoners across the country are effectively entombed for nearly 22 hours a day in their cells, with no access to any education or rehabilitation programmes, with warehousing for the mentally ill in Arizona, with a man in Louisana who has been held in solitary since 1972. Prisoners must take their meals in the confines of those walls and are rarely given a chance to have any meaningful interaction with another human being. At all.
The only time prisoners in isolation are allowed to breathe outside air is when they are taken, alone, to a small outdoor yard, or cage, for “exercise”. Exercise is the word used by prison guards to describe the chance to walk a few steps back and forth. In California, following a hunger strike, prisoners were frequently given a chin-up bar and a hand ball, if they were allowed any recreation at all.
Some prisoners have literally lost their sanity due to the lack of human interaction – and estimated 30-50% of all inmates in solitary confinement are mentally ill or cognitively disabled, and 20% of those are severely mentally ill. Others have completely lost skin pigmentation because of the extreme lack of sunlight. And still others have taken their own lives after having little else to fill the time but stare at a wall for more than 20 hours every day.
But despite the plethora of horror stories emerging from the solitary cells across the US, the system remains unabated, and thousands of people remain entombed.
Thanks to pressure from local activists, lawmakers and organisations like Amnesty International, some states – like Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, New York, Virginia and Washington state – have introduced some reforms over the last few years.
However, at the federal level, the US government is currently planning to expand the use of solitary confinement: the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) bought a correctional facility in Illinois two years ago, and this year’s BOP budget includes a proposal to reopen it as a federal supermax prison, potentially replicating the harsh isolation regime from its predecessor.
But how do these conditions of detention provide justice for anyone? This system prioritises retribution and warehousing of inmates over their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
There is widespread national and international agreement about the harm caused by incarceration in isolation. The United Nations’ top expert on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has called for solitary confinement to be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible. He has repeatedly requested to visit super maximum security prison facilities, but the US state department has not allowed this.
Violent crime is a real issue in the US and elsewhere. But incarcerating people for years and even decades in solitary confinement should not be the way forward for any country purporting to respect human rights. A prison management tool that has been lambasted by human rights bodies and is increasingly challenged by penal experts and others is costly, ineffective and inhumane.
The US should focus its energy and resources on ensuring conditions of detention are compatible with its obligations under international law and standards – that the penitentiary system works for the social rehabilitation of prisoners, instead of perpetuating an abusive and cruel regime that is an affront to human rights.
In my previous blog, I called for the abolishment of solitary confinement—“the monster in our national basement”–throughout America’s jails and prisons. I left the question open as to how this might be accomplished.
I see one route, and one route only, toward this essential and long-overdue reform: enactment of a federal law that categorically bans solitary confinement in all federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and detention centers. The law would establish strong felony charges (I would stop short of solitary confinement) for wardens and guards who violate it.
The congressional bill calling for total abolishment should be bipartisan, and should be buttressed by as many signatories as possible.
The law should have a name, of course. I propose the Dorothea Dix Humanity Toward Prisoners Act.
I will enlarge on this remedy and its possible champions later in this essay.
It is true that recent years have seen several initiatives to curtail solitary confinement, which currently encages 80,000 to 100,000 American prisoners and inmates on a given day. They are well intentioned half-measures, and they are doomed to meaninglessness and failure. Half-measures will never be enough to eradicate this evil.
Nearly all juvenile offenders are sent to state prisons, or to local jails. Most of these are pre-trial detainees, trapped behind bars as they await trials that may be weeks, months, or years in the future.
A scandalous eighty-five percent of adolescents at the dreadful Rikers Island in New York—from a population that often approaches ten thousand daily—are pretrial detainees, most of whom simply cannot afford to pay bail for charges of petty crimes. Although this form of detention has been frequently challenged on constitutional grounds, it persists, with these young captives enjoying the same rights as convicted prisoners: the right to be separated indefinitely from their families; the right to be beaten and slashed by guards and fellow inmates; the right to kill themselves; and, of course, the right to solitary confinement and descent into madness (if they are not mad already, as twenty percent of the Rikers population typically is).
The single most notorious and crushing example of this, which I treat on pp. 150-151 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, is the post-incarceration suicide of Kalief Browder, a promising young African-American man falsely accused of a crime and then packed off to Rikers for three years, two of which he spent in solitary, before being released. Browder was the subject of two piercing essays by Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker, linked below:
Few jails in America, or in history, are as dangerous to their inmates as Rikers. When guards manage to intervene in a suicide attempt, for instance, they often follow up by beating the inmate until his blood and urine flow. (To give credit where it is due, Mayor DeBlasio announced in 2014 that he had a plan to close Rikers. The plan would take ten years to implement. That’s nice. Maybe then he can start helping out on Guantanamo.) Across America, and with varying degrees of official brutality, the young, the mentally ill, and the un-tried are largely at the mercy of inept, negligent, or actively repressive wardens and jailers. As I wrote in my previous blog: “[O]ur state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.”
Endemic in the United States, solitary confinement appears indifferent to a region’s general political values. It is the Monster Who Will Not Die—at least not until a stake is driven through its heart. Half-measures do not contemplate the stake. The federal government must.
California prides itself as being among the most progressive of states; yet it has ranked among the most promiscuous in the matter of bulldozing prisoners off for long stretches in “the Hole.” In the state’s charmingly named Pelican Bay State Prison alone, more than 500 prisoners had been held in solitary for more than 10 years, 78 of whom for more than 20. In all, the state held 9,870 prisoners in isolation in December 2012, when inmates, following the longest inmate hunger strike in California history to protest the practice, filed a prisoners’ lawsuit, Ashker vs. Governor. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/2015-09-01-Ashker-settlement-summary.pdf Supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the suit was settled in the prisoners’ favor—pretty much—in 2015. Settlement terms resulted in the trimming down to 3,471 solitary prisoners as of August 2016, a 65 percent reduction. It greatly reduced the number of long-term solitary captives as well.
Prison officials had long justified solitary by pointing out the high percentage of gang members in their system. Gang-bangers’ influence was considered toxic, and dangerous, within the general prison population.
California’s enforced curtailing of “the Hole” is admirable, even pivotal, as far as it goes. The specter of gang members in the general population has not yet produced chaos: prison administrators have been obliged to seek other remedies, and they have worked. And for the hard-nosed among us, who believe that jailbirds deserve everything they get, here is a hard-nosed fact that may sway them: wiping out solitary confinement saves taxpayers’ money.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016-2017 state budget stipulates a reduction of $28 million as a direct result of the jail and prison housing conversions.
As the nonprofit national watchdog groupSolitary Watch has reported, citing the state’s Department of Corrections figures:
“The cost reductions are unsurprising given the long-reported high cost of isolating individuals in California’s prisons. In 2010-11. . .it cost $70,641 annually to hold prisoners in the SHU [Security Housing Unit]. . .In contrast, [spent] an average of $58,324 on general population prisoners.”
All of this is admirable; a promising, if woefully belated, start to the fulfillment of Dorothea Dix’s noble dream.
And yet, it remains just that: a start. A good intention. A half-measure, given the history of what too often happens to good intentions. As 2015 ended, 5,378 men and 199 women in remained in various forms of solitary in California. That is 5,577 solitary inmates too many.
The most promising—well, half-measure—was introduced last October. Five Democratic senators brought out a bill called the Solitary Reform Act (S. 3432), which would restrict solitary confinement for all federal prisoners, not just teenagers. The co-sponsors were Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Al Franken of Minnesota.
Once again: this proposal is enlightened as far as it goes, and in all likelihood reflects the senators’ understanding of the art of the possible, and its limitations. The legislation would free about ten thousand solitary inmates in federal prisons, roughly 6 percent of the total Yet it would not touch the oppression of the 70,000 people encaged in state prisons and county jails.
I believe that federal law must go much farther—all the way to the death of the monster in our national basement.
I believe that federal law must encompass not just federal prisons, but the very constitutionality of solitary confinement.
I believe its sponsors should be bipartisan. Surely they must not exclude the Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a trained child psychologist, who emerged last year as his party’s almost solitary champion of the mentally ill and their interests with his breakthrough CARES Act, which was incorporated into President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a doctrinaire conservative on many issues, has supported reform, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor.
Potential Democratic sponsors in addition to the five mentioned above might begin with the young Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who leapt into the headlines and television soundbites last March with his riveting and eloquent rebuke to Rep. Paul Ryan, who had called the (doomed) Republican replacement bill to Obamacare “an act of mercy.” “This is not an act of mercy, Kennedy snapped, after rattling off several tenets of the scripture. “It’s an act of malice.” Kennedy’s family, of course, has a long history of involvement in health care and mental-health care issues, and the Kennedy name on such a bill would give it great symbolic power.
Finally—for purposes of this short list, anyway—I have admired the progressive zeal and compassion of the longtime Ohio Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has been honored as a Legislator of the Year by the National Mental Health Association for her efforts in defending Medicaid funds for the mentally ill and for expanding insurance parity for such sufferers, and for initiatives to safeguard young people entering the juvenile justice system.
Any and all of these legislators would enhance the prospects of an eventual dispatching of the monster in our national basement.
I believe that such a law is especially urgent in these days of civic turmoil, street terror, collapse of faith in our institutions, widespread ignorance of or contempt for national traditions; even the irreducible dignity of our fellow human beings. Abolishing solitary confinement would do more than end an enduring national scourge. It would enshrine in history the crusade of the frail woman who concluded her timeless “Memorial” to the Massachusetts legislature back in 1843:
Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands. In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God.”
The full text of Dorothea Dix’s Memorial, with a brief explanatory, is here:
Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.
We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.
Solitary confinement is just another tool, we assure ourselves. Like we assure ourselves that—oh—the AK-47 is just another appliance. Ethically neutral. Dangerous but necessary. Good to have around when you need it. Properly stored, properly maintained, properly et cetera.
Here is the difference between solitary confinement and the AK-47: solitary is worse. Solitary is inherently evil. Solitary has no utilitarian value. No economic value. No social-protection value. No ethical or moral value. Solitary has one consequence and one consequence only: the slow and torturous disintegration of the human mind.
Solitary confinement must be abolished in this country. Not “limited.” Not “scaled back.” Not “reviewed” or “studied.” Abolished. Dragged out of the basement and exterminated. Prohibited by federal law as cruel and unusual punishment. Crueler, if not more “unusual,” than waterboarding, which is brutish and unproductive, but brief, and usually without lasting destruction to the psyche.
Solitary confinement must be wiped out because of its very purity: it is the purest most unadulterated method of infesting a human brain with loneliness, then despair, then desperation, and finally with head-banging madness that the world has ever seen. Solitary confinement is a demon that feeds on human souls.
As it feeds, here is some of the residue that it leaves behind, to fester: Paranoia. Stupor. Amnesia. Hallucinations; imaginary shapes and voices. Rage. Suicidal impulses. (Half of all jail and prison suicides are committed in solitary or soon after release, though solitary inmates make up only 5 percent of these populations.)
Let’s pause here for a disquisition on what we mean when we say “solitary confinement”: small concrete cell, maybe 7 by 10 feet. Small bed and toilet or hole in floor for urination and defecation. Steel door with slot for sliding food in. Darkness.
The hits include newspaper and magazine journalism as well; and, occasionally, television. The most dignified journals sometimes season their reportage with language that would make an old-time yellow journalism copy editor blush. Here is the August British journal, The Guardian:
“After her son tore off his penis with his bare hands in his cell, Gemma Pena thought Florida’s prison authorities might see his illness,” began one such story, in the August Manchester Guardian. “They’d see he needed a hospital, instead of solitary confinement. The article continued:
“‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s when the nightmare really started.’
“As her son Kristopher has moved through Florida’s prison system; so has Pena, relocating around the state to stay close to him. Now she lives in a tiny one-room apartment in a run-down Miami neighborhood. There’s a bed, a small table, two chairs, and a little window. She keeps the door locked. She lives in a solitary confinement of her own.”
In 2009, the respected advocacy journalist Brooke Shelby Biggs, writing in the progressive bi-monthly Mother Jones, offered a social history of American solitary confinement. Her consummately researched essay should be reviewed by anyone interested in the subject.
Biggs reminded us, for instance, of the fact that “solitary” is not some primitive artifact of 14th-century “Bedlam Asylum.” It is a fairly recent demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, wrought by the most pacifistic religious order in the Western World. In 1790, the Society of Friends (the Quakers) completed work on the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia—the first edifice of the modern prison system. The Quakers conceived the newly evolving prison system as a vehicle not only for punishment but for spiritual rehabilitation. Hence “penitentiary,” denoting penitence. Solitary confinement was refined, at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, as the highest distillation of the penitent act. It was not long, though, before evidence began to show that these isolated souls, instead of discovering peace through reverence, were going mad.
“Eastern State was a grand failure, and it was closed in 1971, 100 years after the concept of total isolation was abandoned. But what it revealed about the torturous effects of solitary may have made the practice attractive to those less concerned with rehabilitation and more interested in retribution. Solitary in the 20th century became a purely punitive tool used to break the spirits of inmates considered disruptive, violent, or disobedient. . .”
And that is more or less where things stand today.
In 2014, Pope Francis described such confinement as a form of torture. By the following year, more than 80,000 inmates, a high percentage of them already mad, were stored in solitary, more than in any other country. The numbers had been rising before that. From 1995 to 2000, the solitary confinement population in America increased by 40 percent. These figures exclude juveniles, who comprise the most inexcusable of all solitary confinement populations—in jails, mostly, awaiting hearings and trials. Adolescent brains, even “healthy” ones, are in a final stage of development that leaves them vulnerable to disruption, especially that caused by stress. (see NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, pp. 34-38). If the “right”—that is, the wrong—genetic inheritance is present, this is the age when schizophrenia develops.
Well, then, if solitary is so awful, why do inmates and prisoners keep getting stored away there?
The most rational defense of the practice that I’ve found is protection: the protection of one prisoner from others that want to do harm to him or her. Or to protect other prisoners from one dangerously violent individual.
But what’s that, you say? Dangerously violent individuals deserve what they get? Let’s keep in mind that up to half of some prison populations suffer severe mental illness; that these illnesses are not treated during solitary (nor, too often, out of solitary either), and that this kind of caging deepens and even creates psychosis. Who benefits when such a brain-damaged entity is placed in, and finally allowed out of, this confinement?
And if “protection” is the rationale, why not simply create an additional regulation-sized and lighted cell or two for that purpose?
The second-most rational defense concerns “discipline.” In fact, this is the only other remotely rational defense.
But “discipline”—and its justifications—are in the eye of the jailer. Which is very bad news for the disciplined. The range of “justifications” is nearly endless, exotic, and often the product of a clueless or sadistic jail official.
Sure, there are “policies.” Good ones, often. In January 2016, President Obama issued executive orders to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons, with their total population of some 197,000. Yet our state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.
At these levels, little accountability exists to enforce the “policies” restricting solitary. In that breach, here is a tiny sampling of the reasons sending inmates into “the Box”:
And often, for reasons unexplained: the mother of a young, psychotic inmate in Florida, with whom I have been communicating since last autumn, claims that her son has done stretches in solitary for as long as nine months. What possible offense could merit confinement in “the hole” for nine months? Florida, by the way, boasts—if that is the word—more than 12,000 isolated inmates: one-eighth of the total in America.
Long stretches in the tight darkness such as this one seem impossible to believe—until you learn that that a man named Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther arrested for robbery in 1969, was released only in 2016, having served more than forty years in solitary. For those keeping score, this is a United States record.
I suspect a further reason, a reason that underlies the absurdist reasons listed above. I suspect it even though I find little empirical evidence to back me up. I suspect that wardens and guards throw prisoners into solitary out of fear. The same kind of fear that slave owners once harbored toward their slaves. And stemming from the same reasons.
Solitary confinement, in other words, is used to fight fear with fear.
Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.
We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.
In my next blog post, I will discuss what I believe is the only hope for exterminating the monster.
This horrific story, originally reported by the excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and picked up by Slate a couple days ago, is yet another demonstration of my assertion in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE that “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Terrill Thomas’s death by slow, deliberate, guard-induced dehydration while in solitary confinement at a Milwaukee County jail is an abomination, and a part of a larger national abomination. Our society must demand an end to solitary confinement!