OPINION: Solitary confinement is torture and should be banned


An inmate peeks through the bars at a restrictive housing unit, formerly known as solitary confinement, on June 2, 2016, at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. Tribune News Service

Nearly 20% of adults in state and federal prison spend time in solitary confinement while serving out their sentences.

Also called restrictive housing or administrative segregation, solitary confinement is a form of discipline in the penal system often used for punitive or protective reasons which isolates prisoners in a single cell with no physical or social interaction for up to 22-24 hours a day.

Solitary confinement cells are often small with metal doors instead of bars, with meals coming in through slots in the door. Those in solitary confinement are forced into idleness with no opportunities to work or attend prison programs as well as no television, radio, art supplies or even reading materials.

Prisoners may be put in solitary confinement for months or years for a plethora of reasons including violence against other inmates or guards, possessing contraband, testing positive for illicit drugs or disobeying orders.

Other reasons to be put in solitary confinement may be due to mental illness or needing protection from other inmates. The decision to put prisoners in solitary confinement is determined by prison officials with little to no oversight. 

There are hearing processes at many prisons for prisoners sent to solitary confinement but these hearings are very superficial with little rights or representation granted to the prisoner.

Although solitary confinement is not meant to physically harm inmates, it can have extremely detrimental effects on one’s mental health, especially for juveniles or those with a mental illness.

In a report made by the University of North Carolina School of Law, they describe solitary confinement as having similar effects to those produced by physical torture.

Solitary confinement constitutes as a form of torture due to all the many psychological effects it has on the prisoner, including causing hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia and many other physical and psychological problems.

Adding to the psychological torment of isolation are the physical conditions of many solitary confinement cells. The report describes many solitary confinement cells as dirty, lacking basic hygiene and plumbing as well as poor ventilation and temperature control.

The lack of any human interaction for even short periods of time can leave prisoners with long lasting psychological damage, some even self-mutilating or committing suicide. 

For those who have a mental illness, solitary confinement exacerbates their condition significantly. Many times, solitary confinement is used to control those with mental illnesses and to separate them from the general population, but this is possibly more detrimental for them.

Solitary confinement will only make the mentally ill more unstable and impossible to manage or rehabilitate. It is for these reasons that United Nations experts on torture have called for all states to “ban the solitary confinement of prisoners…with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.”

Solitary confinement is the antithesis of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Prisoners need to be given opportunities to make decisions and control certain aspects of their environment in order to promote rehabilitation and not learned helplessness.

Prisoners need to be communicating and engaging in “external stakeholders” which include government officials, family, advocacy organizations and the general public.

The emphasis needs to be on communication between prison staff and prisoners as well as rewarding good behavior with incentives and more privileges, such as more commissary or out-of-cell time. 

Considering all the horrendous effects that solitary confinement has, it seems quite clear that it would be in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. On top of that, keeping inmates in solitary confinement can cost up to three times as much as a regular prison unit.

In order to prove a violation of the Eighth Amendment by the Supreme Court’s standards, those committing the cruel act must know that they are doing harm to the prisoner. Therefore, Americans need to raise attention to this issue to make it clear, especially to prison staff, that solitary confinement is in fact torture.

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