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Solitary Confinement Is Torture

Earnest Collins stands in the Intensive Management Unit at Clallam Bay, Washington. (Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times)

The following is the first in series of reports by undergraduate students in the "PRISON" course at UC Berkeley.

In 2013, the UN rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez, appointed by resolution 1985/33 of the UN Commission on Human Rights, published two reports (here and here) in which he argues that solitary confinement should be banned in most cases and warns against the massive abuse of “Security Housing Units” (SHU) in the American carceral system.

In the second report, Mendez assesses that “Prison regimes of solitary confinement often cause mental and physical suffering or humiliation that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. If used intentionally for purposes such as punishment, intimidation, coercion or obtaining information or a confession, or for any reason based on discrimination, and if the resulting pain or suffering are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture” (Report A/68/295, p. 16/23). Already denounced by Charles Dickens during his trip to North America in 1842, solitary confinement is thus considered equivalent to torture by the highest authority in the matter.

SHU was developed in the 1980s, following the rise of violence in some state prisons during the 1970s, as a way to control “the worst of the worst” prisoners and to respond to overcrowding. This special method of punishment, consisting in isolating a prisoner from any human contact and lock him or her up 23/24 hours a day, has proliferated during the last two decades, especially in California. There is no legal limit as to how long an inmate can be held in solitary confinement; this lack of regulation is actually generalized to the entire system of isolation. Very few photos of SHU are published and the actual dimensions of a cell remain unclear, as enlightens the incapacity of Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to answer the question of Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) on the average size of a cell in solitary.

Solitary confinement not only illustrates legal loopholes but also presents negative effects on the physical and mental health of the incarcerated inmate, as highlighted Terry Kupers from the American Psychiatric Association, in a speech at Chicago on November 9, 2009. The specialist argues that solitary confinement, through sleep and sensory deprivation as well as the feelings of anger and despair it provokes in the prisoner often leads to mental breakdown and to suicide in 50% of the case. A vicious circle between mental illness and solitary confinement is rapidly set, the mental fragility of an inmate justifying his isolation, and his isolation worsening his mental fragility. Dr. Kupers also points out that a prisoner cannot see a practitioner and begin a therapy out of a cage made of steel. SHU is for him a “punitive segregation” and fulfills an “anti-rehabilitative” logic. Indeed, a 2012 report of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has proved that SHU worsened recidivism, as shown in the graph here.

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Moreover, as Jonathan Simon has written, “most SHU prisoners are there not for any crimes committed on the outside, or disciplinary violations on the inside, but because prison officials have determined that they are an "associate" of one of the racist prison gangs that dominate the social order of California prisons”.


Solitary confinement, therefore, not only hinders rehabilitation but does not even fulfill security goals. Indeed, during the hunger strike that took place at Pelican Bay last summer, Jeffrey Beard, the head of the CDCR, declared that “many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs” - prisoners gangs supposedly held in solitary confinement. Then what is the actual justification of SHU, if it is not to prevent “gang leaders” to terrorize other inmate as well as prison staff?

The answer may be that, precisely, there is no concrete justification to solitary confinement. Threatening the physical and mental health of the isolated inmate, SHU is also, as recalls Juan Méndez, a degrading treatment that directly damages the prisoner’s inherent dignity. In his book In the Belly of the Beast, Letters from Prison (1981), Jack Henry Abbott, former inmate held much time in solitary confinement, declares: “If I were an animal housed in a zoo in quarters of these dimensions, the Humane Society would have the zookeeper arrested for cruelty. It is illegal to house an animal in such confines” (p. 46).

And yet, incarceration implies the loss of some civil rights, not of rights in general; the right to dignity, in particular, has been declared fundamental by the US Supreme Court in 1958 (Trop v. Dulles) when Chief Justice Warren claimed that “the basic concept underlying the 8th amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.” More recently, in Brown v. Plata (2011), the Court recalled that “prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”

Therefore, solitary confinement is not only an infringement of the prisoner’s rights but an infringement of Human Rights in general. Through SHU, it is not only the incarcerated inmate that is harmed and humiliated, but society as the whole. Accepting solitary confinement within our prisons is approving of a legal and organized form of torture and denying to certain men the right to health care, to rehabilitation and to dignity. As Jack Abbott wrote in his book: “You sit in solitary confinement stewing in nothingness. Not merely your own nothingness but the nothingness of society, others, the world."


Justine Boniface
UC Berkeley