The following is the second in series of reports by undergraduate students in the “PRISON” course at UC Berkeley.
“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover such mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” (In re Medley, U.S. Supreme Court, 1890).
The controversy surrounding solitary confinement is nothing new. In the case of James J. Medley in 1890, the Supreme Court acknowledged the severe physical affects that solitary confinement had on prison inmates. Yet, the practice of solitary confinement has increasingly been a feature of mass incarceration. The practice of disappearing inmates into segregated and isolated cells is a contradiction to everything America stands for as a supposed champion for human rights.
As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the conditions that individuals across the country (and world) are faced with. I’m thinking of the caged bodies pacing around in windowless cells, isolated, spending endless hours in a system depriving their very humanity. I think of them while I sit in my relative freedom.
This dichotomy of my “freedom” and the inmate’s lack of “freedom” is humbly meant to shed light on a reality that I believe largely goes ignored. This is the reality of our inhumane prison system. It is important to note that mass incarceration is an epidemic in our society, and solitary confinement is simply another brutal extension of a larger system. Arguing against solitary confinement is also arguing against the system of mass incarceration that sustains and feeds it. This is an epidemic that is destroying our communities (of color, particularly) one inmate at a time.
You cannot claim to value human dignity if you support torturous practices like solitary confinement. Brown v. Plata ruled in 2011 that any prison “[depriving] prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society” (Justice Kennedy). This ruling was a huge step in the prison movement as it posited dignity as a fundamental human right that should be held by everyone, including incarcerated people. Though Brown v. Plata condemned prison conditions that violate human dignity, those conditions have continued. This is evident in the denial of essential human needs such as social interactions and sensory stimulation – needs that solitary confinement by design insures are unmet.
Michel Foucault, French philosopher, wrote about the transition of punitive practices—from the public spectacle of torture to new, hidden forms of punishment. Foucault characterizes this transition as the disappearance of the spectacle and the elimination of pain. He believes that physical pain of the corporal body is “no longer the constituent element of the penalty” (Discipline and Punish). I disagree and would argue that this transition from the public to the private has hidden the conditions in which we confine our prisoners. Now punishment is “out of sight, out of mind,” relieving the state of the responsibility to ensure the health and safety of our prison inmates. This new system does not relieve the human body of any pain as Foucault also claims. Studies have demonstrated that practices such as solitary confinement drastically accelerate the deterioration of human health, both physically and mentally.
Many inmates in solitary confinement are already in many ways coming in stripped of humanity and dignity as racialized bodies. In Golden Gulag, Ruth Gilmore speaks on this disadvantage: “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Racialized bodies that enter the prison system are already in a state of vulnerability to premature death—death of all senses of the “self.” In addition to this, many folks in solitary confinement enter with preexisting mental illnesses. Solitary confinement is known to exacerbate mental illness, and has the potential of inducing mental illness; such as paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, irrational anger, etc.
The conditions of isolation are incompatible with human nature, as social interactions and sensory stimulation are critical to human health and brain function. Inmates in California’s Pelican Bay secure housing unit, SHU, are confined to a small, isolated cell for 23 hours a day with half an hour of exercise in a twenty-foot “concrete box.” This is characteristic of most solitary confinement units across the country. Inmates have no access to meaningful communication or productive activites to sustain their mental health. Their minds deteriorate and their concept of reality can potentially be distorted forever. The detrimental effects on human health caused by solitary confinement fly in the face of the argument that solitary confinement is a rehabilitative tool. If inmates are to be better fit for society after serving their prison sentence, they should be put in conditions that would allow their social skills to thrive, and their creativity to flourish. This seems like common sense. However, solitary confinement produces the opposite.
Many inmates are sent to solitary confinement for nonviolent infractions, others for being associated with prison gangs, all at the discretion of prison officials. Many are sent to solitary confinement units in the name of decreasing prison violence. But violence in prisons isn’t decreasing and inmates are now beginning to resist these conditions. Solitary confinement not only creates a public safety issue because inmates who have been confined under these conditions often suffer permanent mental damage but it costs $78,000 a year per inmate.
My call to readers is to critically think about how (y)our freedom is implicated in the lack of freedom of another human being. We need to gain compassion for fellow human beings. When making a dignity argument, one should not stop at doing away with extensive sentences in solitary confinement. One should argue for prison abolition if they are truly concerned with human dignity. We need to use our resources to truly rehabilitate and heal our people. We need to stop seeing prisons as a disconnected site to which “undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such dispro¬portionate numbers” (Angela Davis). Until human dignity is genuinely valued in this country, restorative and rehabilitative justice will not be served.