The United States today is housing tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement, a form of numbing mental torture that drives about one-third of them psychotic, induces irrational anger in 90%, and ups the likelihood they will commit violent crimes upon release.
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” U.S. Senator John McCain once wrote of his two years spent in a fifteen by 15-foot prison cell in Viet Nam. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Testimony from other notables that have endured long stretches in solitary have elicited like comments.
Yet, the U.S. today has the dubious distinction of incarcerating “the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement” around the world, according to an article in the March 30th The New Yorker magazine. And they make up a growing portion of our 2.3 million inmates, a shameful statistic that ranks America first among all nations. Gawande’s article is titled “Hellhole.”
The first supermax built anywhere was Sydney, Australia’s “Katingal” unit at Long Bay Correctional Centre in 1975. Dubbed the “electronic zoo,” it lasted a brief two years before it was closed down over human rights concerns, according to Wikipedia.
In the 17 years beginning with the construction of the first U.S. “supermax” prison in Marion, Illinois, in 1983, 60 such prisons have sprouted—prisons specifically designed for mass solitary confinement, reports Atul Gawande in the The New Yorker. The Federal Bureau of Prisons euphemistically refers to its solitary cells as “Special Housing Units.” Most of the supermax prisons have been erected by State governments and two-thirds of all states have them.
“The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels,” Gawande writes. “America now holds at least 25,000 inmates in isolation in supermax facilities. An additional 50,000 to 80,000 are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures.”
The Urban Institute found the per cell cost for confining one prisoner in solitary for one year is $75,000. Taxpayers could put a dozen students through community college for the same bucks and society would get a better return. From every indication, money spent on a supermax is money poorly spent.
Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, who interviewed more than 200 prisoners kept in solitary, concluded that about one in three of them had developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. Prisoners so confined spend their time talking to themselves, pacing back and forth like animals in cages, and blank out mentally. Some beat their heads against the walls until blood flows. Others lapse into catatonic states, utterly destroyed as functioning human beings. “EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement,” Gawande writes.
Often, prisoners can be confined in solitary for minor infractions of prison rules, such as taking too much time in the shower or associating with a gang member. By denying an inmate social interaction, “the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury,” Gawande points out. After all, he notes, “Human beings are social creatures.”
The writer quotes Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz allowed to study inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, as finding many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind — to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result.” Additionally, many of the solitary inmates become consumed with revenge fantasies. We need to ask, “What is the cost to society in treasure and blood after their release?” “How many go straight to mental hospitals?” “How many wind up right back in prison?”
There are defenders of the supermax model, however. One inmate wrote the Denver Post he was not affected by the boredom and considered the silence “wonderful.” He said, “I still have a relatively intact mind. It could be infinitely worse.” And in Forbes magazine, author Ian Ross (no kin), wrote, “It’s worth considering that the Supermax model — which includes prisoner isolation for 23 out of every 24 hours a day — may be serving as a deterrent to some violent criminals, a kind of brightly lit billboard that advertises the life of rather extreme measures they are facing. There’s no way to quantify that, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.” (It may be, indeed!)
In June, 2006, after a year-long study, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons called for an end to long-term isolation of prisoners. It said there were no benefits to the practice beyond 10 days of punishment. What’s more, Gawande writes, “evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions — in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support — make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released.”
The writer says our willingness to confine our own citizens to solitary made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war. “In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement — on our own people….” Since prolonged solitary is little more than the sadistic crucifixion of thousands of human beings, where, oh where, is the public outrage?
Sherwood Ross is a veteran reporter and public relations consultant. He formerly worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago, the Chicago Daily News, and as a columnist for wire firstname.lastname@example.org