Robert Galbraith/Reuters/Landov

The collective crisis of solitary confinement

Isolating prisoners is costly, ineffective and psychologically harmful

April 8, 2014 5:00AM ET

America’s prison system is having a breakdown. And the people best positioned to speak about the psychological crisis playing out behind bars are, ironically, the hardest to hear.

The recent death of a mentally ill inmate in solitary confinement at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex — apparently due to neglect in an overheated cell — exposed the brutality of forced isolation, an established practice in U.S. incarceration. The tragedy lies not in the particular neglect of that cell but in the systemic neglect plaguing the entire institution.

Ismael Nazario, 25, who was locked up as a teenager at Rikers, recently spoke in a “PBS NewsHour” interview about the estimated 300 days he collectively spent in “the box.”

“Start talking to yourself, speaking out loud, just start pacing back and forth. Like, oh, this is crazy,” he said. He recalled yearning for any kind of human contact, talking with other inmates by yelling through “a little crack in the side of the door. You get real close to it and just you scream, you know?”

Some are starting to listen. Many state policymakers are rethinking solitary confinement — the practice of placing people in complete social isolation for extended periods, from days to decades — and seeking to move toward more rehabilitative criminal justice interventions. Last month New York state corrections authorities announced plans to curb the practice as part of a broader reform effort, including a ban on solitary confinement for adolescents.

Meanwhile, city, state and federal policymakers, attuned to growing public health needs, acknowledge that mental illness is a major factor driving people into the penal system. One national study found that about 17 percent of adults entering jails and state prisons suffer from serious mental illness.

Nonetheless, thousands of psychologically troubled people remain trapped between twin crises in criminal justice and mental health.

Despite growing public criticism of solitary confinement as both inhumane and ineffective, its advocates still cling to the concept of isolation as discipline. Some officials insist that solitary confinement is not only necessary but also beneficial. Last month Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed an appeal in federal court seeking to overturn a ruling that solitary confinement for death-row inmates violated the constitution. He argued the court’s decision “intrudes into the core professional judgment of state corrections officials.”

With similar law-and-order brazenness, the head of New York City’s correction officers’ union has contended that solitary is effective for restraining disruptive inmates and protecting security staff.

The people on the receiving end of this treatment, however, experience it differently — as a phalanx of social alienation, emotional despair and consuming neurosis. A 2006 psychiatric assessment (PDF) of the effects of solitary found that inmates often experience hypersensitivity to tiny stimuli — like that crack in the door — or develop a “mental fog” that leads to a loss of focus and social withdrawal. One interviewee spoke of repeatedly cutting his wrists, recalling that “every time I did it, I wasn’t thinking — lost control — cut myself without knowing what I was doing.”

Security officers might put an inmate in solitary confinement for a disciplinary infraction, getting into a fight or just being threatened by violent fellow inmates. The isolation may last days, months or even years. The arbitrariness of the practice reveals how confinement eventually stops serving a particular disciplinary purpose and instead amounts simply to banishment.

In prison-crazed America, state violence is exercised not through bloodshed but through the civilized torture of solitary confinement.

It makes sense, then, that studies of incarcerated populations in New York, California and Texas have linked solitary confinement to elevated suicide risk. That reaction is not so irrational if one considers daily life reduced indefinitely to an eight-by-10-foot cell, with no foreseeable exit.

Michel Foucault theorized in “Discipline and Punish” that isolation was key to the logic of the modern prison system, in which such penalties appear to be more humane than outright physical abuse but, in reality, inflict a more insidious psychological damage. In prison-crazed America, state violence is exercised not through bloodshed but through civilized torture.

Because this treatment is imposed outside of public view, the public discourse on crime and justice remains conveniently walled off from the extreme practices of our penal structure. Outside the U.S., however, human rights advocates, including United Nations authorities, widely condemn solitary confinement as torture and a violation of basic ethical and public health precepts.

On a community level as well, solitary confinement does not work as public policy. Driving people into psychological hell in prison does not make them more responsible citizens upon release; more likely, they will return to the outside world with even more inner turmoil (PDF) than they had going in.

Meanwhile, even corrections officials recognize that solitary confinement is both a symptom and a cause of mental health problems. A large portion of people held in solitary suffer from psychiatric problems or may develop them over time after being isolated.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart testified before Congress about the dangers of cutbacks to state mental health budgets, noting that “county jails and state prison facilities are where the majority of mental health care and treatment is administered.” But jails and prisons are not designed or equipped to serve as mental health facilities, and the needed treatment is often not even available — which in turn compounds the crisis, inside and outside the cell.

Even in monetary terms, solitary comes at an unsustainable cost (PDF). A year in solitary costs taxpayers about $75,000 per person, three times the price of less restrictive forms of detention. That’s money not spent on public services for the people disproportionately affected by incarceration — poor, black and Latino communities where police patrols are rife and social service programs anemic.

Paradoxically, the people most vulnerable to this institutional trauma are those most in need of protective institutions. U.S. jails and prisons have placed many young people under the age of 18 in solitary confinement. Solitary is sometimes used to punish misbehaving children at juvenile facilities, but some kids are placed in “protective” confinement, supposedly to shield them from attacks from other inmates. Whether they’re being protected or punished, these youths often end up being denied access to medical and psychological treatment and basic social resources, such as educational programming and contact with family. It’s an environment that sets them on a path to further turmoil; boys like Nazario are released back to their neighborhoods, yet many will remain caged by the effects of their mental trauma for years to come.

This inequity will roil on until we dismantle the institutional violence that enforces it. The horrors that unfold in the solitary confinement cell represent not our worst criminals but the worst within ourselves. The more people we banish to solitary, the more we deny our own humanity.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, an associate editor at CultureStrike and a blogger at The Nation. She is a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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