Crime & Punishment
No Human Contact: Atul Gawande writes: “P.O.W.s have reported that the simple experience of isolation is as much of an ordeal as any physical abuse they have suffered.”
Image Credit: Brad Holland; the New Yorker
Source: The New Yorker
About 80,000 persons are in solitary confinement in American prisons, where they spend 23 hours a day alone, for months or even decades in a space often no larger than 8 x 10 feet (approximately 2.5 metres by 3.0 metres)—the size of a child‘s bedroom. The U.S. is by no means the only nation using solitary confinement, but it is one where its practice is greatest. Before the 1980s, the use of solitary confinement was rare; since then, however, the increased use of solitary confinement has been considered a necessary way to maintain order, notably in large supermax prisons, which were built in the 1990s to house the worst of society’s offenders.
The “war on drugs” and a zero-tolerance policy on gang violence has increased the number of individuals incarcerated, primarily a result of judges handing down harsher prison sentences. Such was the political and social climate 30 years ago. The use of solitary confinement, however, has a much longer history in the U.S., dating to the early 1800s, writes Joel N. Shurkin for Inside Science:
The practice of completely isolating prisoners began in Pennsylvania and New York, and goes back to a theory proposed in the early 19th century, said Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
Quakers in Philadelphia proposed that if prisoners were kept in complete isolation, they might find redemption and rehabilitation by concentrating on their weaknesses without distraction and ultimately become closer to God. Taking up the theory, Pennsylvania built a wheel-shaped prison in Philadelphia designed to ensure that every prisoner was completely alone.
One famous visitor to this prison, called the Eastern State Penitentiary, was Charles Dickens. In 1842, he wrote in “American Notes” that life in the prison was “rigid, strict, and hopeless.” The prison is still standing but has not been used since 1971.Yet, such a confined space can make anyone anti-social, altering his personality and behaviour in deeply negative ways. Gawande, a professor at Harvard Medical School and at the Harvard School of Public Health, writes in The New Yorker:
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.
Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of the general population.* Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.
“There were some guards in D.D.U. who were decent guys,” Dellelo told me. They didn’t trash his room when he was let out for a shower, or try to trip him when escorting him in chains, or write him up for contraband if he kept food or a salt packet from a meal in his cell. “But some of them were evil, evil pricks.” One correctional officer became a particular obsession. Dellelo spent hours imagining cutting his head off and rolling it down the tier. “I mean, I know this is insane thinking,” he says now. Even at the time, he added, “I had a fear in the background—like how much of this am I going to be able to let go? How much is this going to affect who I am?”
He was right to worry. Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.All of these observations are humanly understandable, a result of long periods of involuntary social isolation. Would any of us behave any differently? Unlikely, since prisoners of war also behave similarly, as does anyone placed in a position where he or she has no control, no decision-making opportunity, and no opportunity for joy or happiness. Of course, some, particularly those who hold legalistic views, would argue that prison ought not be a place for any joy, or happiness or opportunity for rehabilitation, or mental health treatment for that matter; that such people are criminals and ought to be treated in the harshest way. That such people are in prison for crimes, and some for heinous and terrible crimes.
Even as this last sentence is true, the one preceding it is an opinion; and although it was once popular in the United States of America, it might not be right or even effective. One of the questions that society needs to ask itself is what is the purpose of prison. The simple answer is to lock up, warehouse, if you will, persons who break the law of the land. That is, to keep them away from society at large, as both a protective and punitive measure. Even so, solitary confinement is another step in further segregating prisoners—a prison within a prison—often used for breaking even the smallest rules of prison life. Again, there historically has been much support for this view, but is it effective? Does prolonged solitary confinement serve its purpose?
The answer is most assuredly “yes” if you view all individuals who contravene the law as criminals unable to be rehabilitated or redeemed. This is appropriate in accordance with the most simple and harshest reading of the biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth,” (Exodus 21:24). In Judaism, the rabbis have a more humane interpretation of Lex Talionis, or the law of retaliation, writing that monetary compensation is all that is necessary to make things right for the injured party. In more liberal and humanistic forms of Judaism, laws have changed with the changes in society, or at least as the changes apply to the Jewish People.
The view in America, which for all intents and purposes, has followed the Christian arc of thought in matters of justice, is also changing, for example, many persons are rethinking the necessity of retributive justice and the benefits of restorative justice. If it seems that little has changed in the making of public policy in America, this is not the case. Even conservative tough-on-crime states like Texas and Mississippi are rethinking the use of solitary confinement, a response to public sentiment; perhaps, the public’s appetite for severe punishment has waned, reaching its high point in the nineties.
Or on an emotional level, Americans might view law and order as necessary for a civil society, but they generally do not view themselves as cruel. Equally important of consideration are the numbers. With such a high percentage of its population behind bars, someone knows someone either currently in prison or formerly in prison; equally relevant, a large number have spent time in isolation, in solitary confinement, or as it is officially called, Administrative Segregation, or Ad Seg, Something is not right with this picture.
Not all prisoners can be rehabilitated. Some cannot be released to society at large. but most can if they receive the necessary mental-health treatment and have access to education programs. Solitary confinement works against this idea—making people worse then they were before—and likely makes prisoners more angry, more hardened, more determined to carry out their fantasies of revenge. In the end, it all depends on one’s view. If you view a percentage of these individuals behind bars, currently in solitary confinement, as human beings, often without opportunity, making bad decisions, as human beings failing to live up to their potential (see here for one example), then your view has support among Americans.
Changes to this practice are now being discussed in greater seriousness. We might be witnessing the beginning of the end of solitary confinement used as a means of punishment in America. The last word goes to Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, who wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times (“My Night In Solitary; February 20, 2014), after spending 20 hours in solitary confinement on a voluntarily basis to see and feel what it was like:
When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform. If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.