A blot

An item that’s been under my radar is the overuse of solitary confinement in prisons in the US. First there’s the radical, off the charts overuse of prisons themselves, then there’s the wild overuse of solitary in those prisons, and you have a shameful human rights situation. SHAMEFUL.

Fresh Air did a couple of interviews on the subject yesterday.

Human Rights Watch prepared a statement for a Senate committee in 2012.

Solitary confinement in US prisons is imposed for different reasons, but most commonly it is used as punishment for breaches of discipline (“disciplinary segregation”) or to manage prisoners considered to be particularly difficult or dangerous (“administrative segregation”).[4] The increase in solitary confinement in the United States has occurred primarily through administrative segregation, particularly the segregation of prisoners in special super-maximum security facilities built solely for this purpose. Indeed, in our judgment, the proliferation of super-maximum security facilities is the most troubling development in US corrections in recent decades.

Other developed countries don’t do this. They don’t throw people in solitary and leave them there. We actually have a constitutional amendment that forbids cruel and unusual punishment, yet here we are, resorting to this cruel and unusual punishment with wild abandon.

Although there are differences between the specific conditions of solitary regimes in different prisons, they share a basic model. Prisoners in solitary typically spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors. They lack opportunities for meaningful social interaction with other prisoners; most contact with staff is perfunctory and may be wordless (such as when meals are delivered through a slot in the cell door). Phone calls and visits by family and loved ones are severely restricted or prohibited. A few times a week, prisoners are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space, sometimes indoors. They often have extremely limited or no access to educational and recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation, and they are usually handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by correctional officers every time they leave their cells. Assignment to super-maximum security facilities devoted solely to solitary confinement—e.g., Colorado State Penitentiary, Pelican Bay State Prison in California, or Tamms in Illinois—is usually for an indefinite period that often lasts for years.

In some prisons, prisoners in solitary can purchase radios or televisions; participate in educational and skills-enhancing in-cell programs; and access books, newspapers, magazines, and the like. In others, prisoners are denied access to anything more than the basic necessities of survival. The restrictions can exceed the fathomable. In Pennsylvania’s most restrictive units, for example, prisoners have all the usual supermax deprivations plus some that seem gratuitously cruel: they are not permitted to have photographs of family members or newspapers and magazines (unless they are religious).[5] In some prison systems, prisoners who follow the rules and who engage in prescribed programs can earn their way out of solitary; in others, prisoners can languish in segregation for years, even decades, with little idea of what—if anything—they can do to be re-assigned to a less harsh form of imprisonment.

Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib…and Pelican Bay and Tamms.

There is something wrong with us in this country.




  1. says

    That does seem to be the thinking, and has for a long time. “Rehabilitation? What’s that?”

    And then, so many of them are just there for drugs, anyway. No doubt many of them get thrown into solitary because they get ragey about being in prison for doing drugs.

    We are so fucked up.

  2. Carlos Cabanita says

    The aggressive superpower we see in the international arena could not happen without very ugly things happening inside the USA. I don’t live there, but correct me if I’m wrong: you have kangaroo elections, kangaroo security courts, the police treating the citizens with brutality, an extremely racist (in)justice system, and most of of the famous constitutional liberties no longer apply, except for the right of white people to wear guns. This happened gradually, so most of the citizens grew used to it. If I have to chose a moment fot those changes really begin to take place, I’d chose 9/11/2001.

  3. Shatterface says

    The situation is marginally better in the UK but I’ve worked with ex-offenders here and the amount of damage even a small sentence to an open prison can cause is incredible.

    There’s the seperation of often vulnerable people from their friends and family, the break up of relationships and the probability of long-term unemployment – or at least restrictions to drudge-work. It’s no wonder so many reoffend.

    And it’s mainly for quite minor offences.

    There are people who are dangerous and need to be kept apart from society; for most there are non-custodial alternatives that actually help those who want to reform (nothing can make someone reform).

    And prison is also expensive – which is why I’m willing to argue on economic grounds with right-wingers who can’t be reasoned with on moral grounds: if they want tax cuts they have to shift leftwards on law and order.

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    You – and they – are missing something quite important about solitary confinement:

    trans folk and feminine/androgynous men are often placed in solitary confinement in lieu of protecting them from harm. It’s not the dangerous prisoner that always goes to solitary: far too often in this victim-blaming, save-a-buck culture, it’s the endangered.

  5. Shatterface says

    Someone has also pointed out on an earlier thread that segregating vulnerable prisoners from the general population makes them more vulnerable to abuse by prison staff.

  6. RJW says

    Obviously those punishments that are ‘cruel and unusual’ in most liberal democracies are usual in the USA.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Shatterface, that might actually have been me.

    It does depend on the jurisdiction whether one is “safer” in solitary or not, but even where it’s “safer”, putting the non-violent but vulnerable in solitary is horribly unjust.

  8. says

    The US criminal justice system can’t face the fact that it’s punitive, because being punitive doesn’t work past a certain point. Besides, to achieve deterrence, you need to create a society in which a class of citizens live in constant fear (that’s what deterrence is!) It’s not at all possible to rehabilitate people using a system that is designed to instill fear: all the individual learns is that The State cannot be trusted, and is capricious and cruel.Such an individual is much more likely to decide to die in a hail of bullets rather than going back into a prison; the cycle of violence and fear is aggravated by punitive systems.

    It also makes us all party to crimes of The State, if we accept the argument that The State works on our behalf; i.e.: we are a democracy. Because then the state is committing these crimes against humanity in our names. (Disclaimer: I reject the idea that The State works on our behalf)

  9. Rich Roberts says

    I heard the story on NPR yesterday too. What’s even more shocking is that so many of the prisoners in solitary are mentally ill and never got the treatment they need. Due to the fact that most of the mental institutions here in the states got shut down some 30 years ago, many of the poor and mentally disabled end up in prison; then end up in solitary for acting out. It’s sickening to think that the grim existence of the mental institution depicted in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be so much better than what so many of the mentally disabled endure today.

  10. says

    Rich, yes, that was one of the striking points made in that interview.

    Crip Dyke, right, I am. As I said, this has been under my radar…That is, I was certainly aware of our grotesque level of imprisonment, but I haven’t been paying attention to the details, including the one about solitary. Do you have any sources handy?

    Carlos – it’s not quite that bad. But it’s worse than it should be, for sure.

  11. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    E-mail me @ my nym, minus the honorifics, using the google e-mail dot com extension.

  12. sailor1031 says

    We know from many studies of animals, including human ones, that overcrowding causes great stresses (just think lemmings, hares, rats etc). We also know that isolation causes great stress in many species, including humans. Are there any studies of the occurrence of PTSD in ex-prisoners? I wonder if it’s more or less common than among soldiers?

    There are so many things wrong with the american criminal legal system but, surely, for-profit prisons is a really big factor because it has created yet another corporate monster dedicated to furthering its own profits and therefore opposed to any and all reforms.

  13. johnthedrunkard says

    Of course, the prison industry can afford the obscene cost of solitary confinement…while tolerating—and probably collaborating—in rape, assault, gang activity, murder etc.

  14. says

    I get that complaining about a bad situation has value, but everybody here can also actually get out and do something. Two things that I do for people in prison:

    I am a pen-pal to three of those rarest of birds, atheists in prison. When I got started with this, a few years ago, there was a program called the Freethought Books Project, which was an undertaking of the Secular Student Alliance group at Reed College in Oregon. As well as sending atheist- and secular-themed books and magazines to interested people in prisons, they had a “matchmaking” service, whereby outside volunteers would be introduced to prisoners with similar interests, to allow them to begin a correspondence. I understand that the Freethought Books Project is now being run by the Center for Inquiry — details are here. I don’t know if they are also continuing the pen-pal service, but even if they’re not, there are people in prison who would be very grateful to correspond with caring people on the outside, and to receive the occasional newspaper clipping, printed-out blog post or Wikipedia article, or book. And I can assure you, the benefits run both ways!

    The other thing I do is volunteer with a local project here in Iowa City, Iowa, unique as far as I know, called “Stories From Dad”. We solicit donated children’s books from a local bookstore (who are very happy to contribute them), with which we stock a library cart (donated by the local library). We go into the prison once a month, and let interested offenders peruse the books, pick out one or two they would like to share with their children, and read from them, recording themselves on little handheld voice recorders. We then transfer these recordings to CDs, and mail the CD and the book to the family. It should go without saying that all this requires a lot of support from the correctional staff, so your local prison might not be as welcoming of the idea. However, if you would like to start a program like this in your town, get in touch with me, I will tell you all about it, and I will ask the warden of our local prison for a letter describing the good that this program has done, for his staff as well as for the prisoners.

  15. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    I’m aware of studies of the effects of prolonged solitary confinement, some of which included PTSD. I am not aware of studies of psychological effects of imprisonment generally, but I’d be surprised if such studies didn’t exist. It’s just not my field. Try google scholar

  16. rnilsson says

    @ #15 Peter N
    That is a very admirable program! My moral approval (although unfortunately monetary support is short atm).

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