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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