A Few Words on Jail in America, Part 4: Solitary Confinement

What if this were your living space?

Solitary confinement means that this is your home. There are inmates in the US prison system who have spent decades in spaces much like this. Solitary confinement also happens in jail. In this installment, I’ll briefly explore the history of solitary confinement, and then explain the wide variety of reasons why solitary confinement happens in jail.

When an inmate is put into solitary, this doesn't necessarily mean that they never leave the cell. They are required to be given at least one hour in every cycle of twenty-four hours for recreation. This could mean exercise, or it might just mean walking around or showering. In the jargon of jails and prisons, this is called “twenty-three and one”.

Solitary confinement as we know it was invented by Quakers. Sometimes the best-intentioned people make the most serious mistakes. In 1790 they expanded the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia into what they intended as the most humane and enlightened place of punishment in history. Instead of whippings, stockades and hangings, they believed people would be rehabilitated if forced into absolute isolation with nothing but a Bible. Quakers believed that one could have a personal relationship with God, and they held that to isolate a wrongdoer with a Bible would induce the person to reconnect with God. They were wrong. The prisoners who were to be redeemed by God went mad instead.

Indeed, when Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary, built by Quakers and Anglicans from the same model, he said this:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Society came to agree with him and slowly abandoned the practice. Yet in the twentieth century, it made a comeback because, as Brooke Shelby Biggs, writing for Mother Jones, argues, “We no longer seem to have faith in the ‘penitent’ part of ‘penitentiary,’ and our “corrections” system no longer ‘corrects’ anti-social behavior but inevitably breeds it.” The Quakers instituted solitary confinement to redeem the human spirit through God. In the twentieth century, it was revived in prisons to break that same spirit. Not surprisingly, Quakers are now one of the most significant lobbying forces behind ending the practice.

Sometimes solitary confinement is a necessary evil. The media almost never understands this, and as a result the public almost never understands this. Here is a list of common reasons why solitary confinement is implemented:

  1. Discipline: If an inmate’s already in jail and they violate internal rules, locking them up on their own is pretty much all there is to do about it. This can accompany a variety of other privileges being taken away, like the phone, mail, visits, and more. Inmates in solitary confinement are still entitled to proper ventilation, lighting, and hygiene, as well as visits from counsel or clergy.
  2. Protective custody: This happens when an inmate is known to be very high-profile, as it can put them at risk inside jail. I’d like to note here the sheer number of times I’ve heard from members of the public that a molester or serial killer who has been given this protection ought to be thrown to the wolves in general population. People who say this fail to see that they’re not only calling for the abandonment of any pretense at rule of law, but are also really asking for the jail staff to deal with the liability of a preventable death.
  3. Juveniles: The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), an excellent law signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, requires that juveniles be housed separately from adult inmates. If a juvenile is charged as an adult, they’re going to be required by PREA to be in solitary unless the jail has a large enough housing unit just for juveniles. PREA mandates that a jail make every reasonable effort to accommodate juveniles in this way. Even if it does, a juvenile who becomes a behavioral problem in that unit is likely to end up in solitary elsewhere in the facility.
  4. Gang control: If jail staff are confronted with a gang leader who, if not controlled, will be ordering hits inside and outside the jail, or otherwise pulling strings, then isolating them from the general population is the safest option for the safety of all.
  5. Inmates with serious mental illnesses: As discussed in Parts 1 and 2, this population has been largely relegated to the penal system. This demographic, particularly if they are not stabilized on medications, has more of a tendency towards extreme or self-harming behaviors; it is not uncommon to see inmates engaging in behaviors such as covering the walls of their cells in bodily fluids, jumping off their toilets, or bashing their heads on the doors of their cells. Jail staff obviously want inmates not to do any of those things, and it’s part of why it’s important to have a robust psychiatric treatment infrastructure in jail. It’s also in the interests of the inmate’s safety to isolate them from other inmates who might harm them when they carry out these behaviors.
  6. Administrative segregation: If an inmate time and again proves unable to get along with staff or other inmates, they may end up separated from the rest of the population in order to prevent further harm to themselves and others.

With all of this being said, solitary confinement is destructive to human welfare. Indeed, some scientific studies have found solitary confinement should never last more than fifteen days; these same studies have found that even a few days can cause permanent mental damage. When humans are locked up alone for days, weeks and months, to say nothing of years, much of what makes a human being whole begins to break down. People who have never hallucinated before begin to do so; they experience mood swings, have difficulty controlling their impulses, and experience increased anger and anxiety. In a particularly brutal example, one inmate at ADX Florence, the federal government’s supermax facility in Colorado “cut off both earlobes, chewed off a finger, sliced through his Achilles’ tendon, pushed staples into his face and forehead, swallowed a toothbrush and then tried to cut open his abdomen to retrieve it and injected what he considered ‘a pretty fair amount of bacteria-laden fluid’ into his brain cavity after smashing a hole in his forehead.” This inmate had not shown signs of mental illness before he was imprisoned.

As discussed here, there are times when it’s necessary to use solitary confinement given the population that’s been put in jail. The media has arguably missed the big picture on solitary confinement. It is absolutely true that solitary confinement has too often been used as a tool of oppression, as opposed to a terrible necessity. However, solitary confinement has also been used to such an extent partially because of policies that have filled our jails with the mentally ill, juveniles, and over time, millions of non-violent offenders. If one uses a tool to carry out a task for which the tool was never designed, a poor outcome is a significant likelihood. If, in the early 1970s before deinstitutionalization began, someone in a position of influence had said, “These mental hospitals are terrible, so let’s put most of their inhabitants behind bars!”, nobody reasonable would have approved. But it’s exactly what we’ve done; deinstitutionalization is just one of the many factors contributing to this problem.