Solitary Isolation in the American prison system

Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people

If prolonged isolation is””as research and experience have confirmed for decades””so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

The criteria for the isolation of prisoners vary by state but typically include not only violent infractions but also violation of prison rules or association with gang members. The imposition of long-term isolation””which can be for months or years””is ultimately at the discretion of prison administrators. One former prisoner I spoke to, for example, recalled being put in solitary confinement for petty annoyances like refusing to get out of the shower quickly enough.

Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax””our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement””was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions ”œhover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.

America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures.

Is there an alternative?

The above are from an excellent article by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker discussing the effects of solitary confinement on the mind and whether it is morally acceptable or wise for America to incarcerate tens of thousands of people in solitary in the Supermax prison system.

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  • so they can indefinitely “think things over”. Lights are kept on 24/7 so they’re not kept busy by noting the passage of time. Loud music is continually played so that guards are not distracted by the agonizing cries of hopelessness that precede benign insanity.

    Reasonable alternatives – nutrition and fitness regimens; assistance in coping and socialization; substance abuse programs; intellectual and physical exercise; mental health care and/or psychological counseling; education and job training; etc. etc. all these are expensive endeavors. Clearly the researchers have not factored in the overriding importance of the bottom line. The Supermax facilities are rife with well documented stories of abuse, but the privately run prisons are at least equally blameworthy. In their case it even more evident that full cells and minimal costs keep a companies books in the black. When some half crazed devil is released and re-offends, then that’s good for the bottom line. And. public or private institution, that’s all that matters. Isn’t it?

    Nine months solitary confinement

    This report includes a video of an alleged prison torture in Metro Nashville Detention Facility, which is operated by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. This facility warehouses some 1,100 inmates. Corrections Corpoation of America calls itself “the nation’s industry leader of privately-managed corrections solutions for federal, state, and local government.” Prisons have become America’s alternative to hospitals and community treatment for 1.25 million mentally ill citizens, who comprise over 50% of the nation’s total prison population of 2.3 million.

    It costs taxpayers about $185 BILLION annually to imprison approximately 1 of every 134 Americans, many of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, like Frank Horton, the inmate in this video who was kept naked in solitary confinement for nine months – so long that he was “no longer able to speak a language anyone could understand.” According to the report, NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained video clips showing Horton repeatedly being sprayed with inflammatory chemical agents.

    During his confinement, Horton was not allowed to bathe, exercise, or see a doctor, according to reports.

  • …They first make mad.”

    Recall’s uncertain, but I think that’s from ‘Oedipus Rex’….seems applicable, no?

    “God gives men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” — Robin Williams

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