Here’s Why Solitary Confinement Needs to go
About a dozen inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin will begin a hunger strike this week to protest indefinite solitary confinement. The inmate leading the strike spends 23 hours a day in a cell alone and has done so for the past 25 years. Now it might be easy to say “they’ve committed a crime and I’m fine with however inmates are treated.” But is this really the best or only option for dealing with prisoners? What about juveniles? Is solitary confinement actually a form of torture? If you haven’t experienced solitary confinement yourself, perhaps we should look at some of the facts first before you jump to any conclusions.
How many inmates are in solitary confinement? They must be the super-violent ones, right?
Well, an official count on a day-to-day basis hasn’t been set up. According to a census from a decade ago, about 80,000 prisoners were in solitary confinement. Experts estimate the number today is between 80,000 and 100,000 men and women. This number does not take into account any inmates from juvenile, military, or immigration facilities. Solitary confinement isn’t reserved for inmates who have committed the most horrific of crimes either. Rapists and murderers frequently make it to general population if they behave well over time. But that’s not the case for everyone. Getting caught with a cigarette, using profanity, or refusing to cut your hair can land you in solitary– even if you’re only doing time for a low-level drug charge or something non-violent like a financial crime. You might also get thrown in solitary if your political stance, religious beliefs, or lifestyle might cause problems in general population. Now I’m not sympathizing with the Aryan Brotherhood here; although gang-affiliation CAN get you a stay in the hole. But this same logic also extends to gays, transgender inmates, Muslims, mental illness, and inmates who have reported abuse in the facility.
What exactly is “solitary confinement” and what are the terms?
That’s the problem. There aren’t really any terms or an exact set of punishments. It’s really up to the guards. Could be months, could be decades. Think you can get out if you start behaving? Maybe not if there isn’t room to put you anywhere else; prisons are notoriously overpopulated. Think you can write a letter to a judge or call a lawyer? Well, good luck doing so without any phone or letter-writing privileges. Even if they do allow you to write a letter, it’s your word against the guards’. And when you’re a prisoner– good luck with that one. Solitary confinement conditions vary in every US facility. But spending 22-24 hours a day alone behind a steel door is pretty much a universal quality. Here’s some other conditions an inmate might experience: sensory deprivation, denial of medical treatment, exposure to chemical weapons, hog-tying, sexual assault or humiliation (for both male and female inmates), limited access or refusal to provide educational material. And remember, this is life 24/7 for an indefinite amount of time.
Is solitary confinement torture? What are the long-term effects?
According to the UN: yes solitary confinement fits the definition of torture. The UN Committee Against Torture has condemned the use of solitary confinement in the United States since the 1990’s. Solitary confinement had been around for about 20 years at that point. The general saying is, “if you weren’t insane going in, you will be coming out.” And it’s more of a fact than a cheeky-prison joke. Inmates with mental health issues make up a third of the over 80,000 in solitary confinement. But that’s just going in. Here’s what extended isolation does to a “normal” person: uncontrollable fear and rage, hypersensitivity to touch, hallucinations, distortion of time and space, PTSD. Hmm, almost seems like isolation is causing more problems. Especially when you think about how an inmate might go from spending 25 years in solitary, to getting paroled and released in society with virtually no rehabilitation or tools to succeed. And don’t forget, the effects of isolation are worse on kids who’s brains are still developing.
Why is this happening?? How can we stop this?!
Unfortunately, correctional centers throughout the United States are becoming more and more privatized. Which means prisons and jails have become a for-profit industry. Now, prison privatization can’t be directly blamed for all the solitary confinement problems. But when locking people up becomes a business, prison population rises which leads to overcrowding which leads to crappier conditions. A good start for fixing the root of the problem would include drug reform laws and releasing inmates who have committed non-violent or drug-related crimes. Drug-related offenses are also directly to blame for the rising prison population.
Most of the pressure to end solitary confinement in prison comes from family members of inmates or the inmates themselves. The rest of society more or less takes the out of sight out of mind approach to inmate treatment. So the pressure is really on the rest of us to care and speak-up. Remember, these are people who have committed crimes so it’s easy for most law-abiding citizens to write-off “inmate rights” as a non-issue. That’s how the problem has gotten this bad. Solitary confinement and for-profit prisons have no place in modern society.