The cruelty of solitary confinement

In a recent episode of the show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took on the issue of placing prisoners in solitary confinement, how it is extremely cruel, and how sometimes prisoners are subjected to it for punitive reasons for minor infractions.

I learned that the practice was started by Quakers, of all people, who thought that it might encourage thoughtfulness and penitence. I also learned that the average size of a solitary confinement cell is just 6ft by 9ft, which means that there are some that are smaller than that. Imagine being cooped up in such a small space for 22 or 23 hours a day.


  1. Tethys says

    I learned that the practice was started by Quakers, of all people, who thought that it might encourage thoughtfulness and penitence.

    Quakers did not invent dungeons or keeping people in tiny cells. They invented prisons with individual cells as a criminal punishment that was far more humane than the prevailing trend, which was mostly capital punishment.

    Various societies had quite the fetish for immuring living people into walls as a punishment, or to find god in the case of both Jewish hermits in the wilderness and the Anchorites of Medieval Churches.

    Previous to the Quakers attempts to create humane prisons, prisoners were packed into filthy, mixed gender, common rooms to await trial. Obviously this had dire consequences for anyone who had been locked in jail with violent sociopaths, not to mention the diseases like typhus which killed prisoners en masse.

    Punishments were commonly forms of torture and public executions , even for petty crimes. Trial by Fire was a real practice. (Among others such as Water, Combat, etc..) If your horrible burns healed after being forced to walk on hot coals, you had earned Gods favor and were released. I’m assuming that infection was a far more likely result, due to the squalor of prisons.

    Australia and America were penal colonies, with England sentencing whole boatloads to ‘transportation’ and indentured servitude rather than death by hanging.

    My various sources noted that solitary confinement in US prisons has increased due to Covid.
    Even the Pennsylvania Quakers did not keep prisoners in solitary confinement except at night. They were formed into working groups during the day, but were required to be silent at all times, on pain of flogging.

    The Auburn Model is some horrible reading, if you want insight into crime and punishment that includes the mindset of the Warden.
    He found the flogging was more effective than the dungeon at keeping prisoners “obedient”.

  2. John Morales says

    Well, yes, it’s cruel, and arguably torture.

    Still. Not quite the same thing as regular beatings or electroshocks or waterboarding or pulling fingernails or other innumerable other such things, never mind medieval tortures.
    Or Abu Ghraib techniques, for that matter.

    (Not quite the same as a proper oubliette, either, being hardly a new concept.)

  3. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    The quakers were fundamentally wrong in their understanding of what makes for an effective process to reform criminals. They took it from their own wacky religious lens, which invariably meant that they arrived at a batshit conclusion that criminals get better through self reflection in severe isolation. Supposing the above comment to be correct, I’m glad that they marginally improved the criminal justice system, but let’s not pretend that good (religious) intentions are all that matters when the outcome was still grotesque.

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