Solitary is defined as confinement of a prisoner in a cell or other place in which he or she is completely isolated from others. What does that mean?
For the prisoner, it means no contact with others except perhaps getting food through a slot in the door. It may mean a place where you have no control over the light. It may be dark or light 24 hours a day. Your cell may not even have a window, but only slots for meals or putting on and taking off cuffs for transport. It means not being able to have a conversation with others; and if you can talk to your neighbor in the next cell, you may not ever see their face. It means no contact with family or outsiders except perhaps a monthly phone call or a visit through glass. It means 23 hours a day in your cell and only one hour to take a shower or exercise alone in a cage, similar to a dog kennel, and that may not happen every day. It means getting food that is below par even for a prison. It means isolation and despair. It means doubting your sanity and thinking you may be losing your mind. It means contemplating suicide just to end it.
Why are prisons using solitary confinement for everything from controlling a mentally ill inmate, to punishing infractions of the rules, to isolating a juvenile who is not following orders, to long term internment for those who are deemed gang members, or are violent or dangerous? Prisons now have more segregated housing than ever before. People are housed in concrete cells with concrete beds and toilets bolted to the floor. There is little room to move or do virtually anything except lie down or stand up. The United States has one of the highest per capita rate of incarceration (five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated people) and the most inmates in solitary confinement. They use it to keep violent offenders and gang members controlled. They use it to keep the mentally ill controlled. They use solitary confinement when a prisoner they have had problems with does not follow the rules. It’s a fact that it costs more to keep an inmate in solitary than it does in general population. How do you think this affects the bottom line of for-profit prison corporations?
Has it worked? No. The violence in prisons has not been reduced, while the amount of inmates who develop mental illness while in isolation has increased. America has not yet come to the realization that solitary confinement does not work. In Germany and Britain, the penal system realized this and they changed how they dealt with violent criminals. They treated them like human beings and gave them more power over their conditions. They are not housed in isolation cells, but in blocks of housing, where when they receive more benefits as they learn to live and behave in their area. There have been several programs documenting their systems and the results. The most impressive being a 60 Minutes’ news program, showing how prisoners are treated in Germany and the results when they are released. Is there a 100% success rate? No, they still house a few individuals in solitary, but that amount is minuscule compared to the US.
In the book, “Hell is a Very Small Space”, voices from solitary confinement are documented. Those voices are so powerful. They tell and show how the mind is affected by long term confinement. In one excerpt the inmate writes that their cell is so small they can only take four steps forward before they reach the door. The cell is so small he cannot stand up without being careful as to not hit a part of his body on something. Some inmates in this prison have been there for more than twenty years! This is truly cruel and unusual punishment.
Have some of these men and women committed a heinous crime? Yes. But some of them committed their crime as a teenager or young person and now they may be in their 50’s and 60’s. They are not the same person who committed that terrible crime.
We can only hope that America comes to its senses and realizes that solitary confinement is not an answer, but a problem that is getting bigger. There needs to be change.
If you are near San Francisco, please go see Sarah Shroud’s play, “The Box”. Sarah was one of the three American hikers held prisoner by Iran. She was held almost exclusively in solitary confinement for 410 days. Another good source for learning about solitary confinement is www.solitarywatch.com.
A registered nurse and former medical administrator, has now turned her inspiration to writing and advocacy. Her most recent published book,Waiting on the Outside; sharing her journey being a mother to her son who is in prison. Sharron also maintains a blog and resource page providing information and related news for friends and family of the incarcerated.
To read more about Sharron and her recently published book of being a mother to her son in prison and or her blog, CLICK HERE.