The Right Opinion

Solitary Confinement's Toll

By George Will · Feb. 21, 2013

WASHINGTON – “Zero Dark Thirty,” a nominee for Sunday's Oscar as Best Picture, reignited debate about whether the waterboarding of terrorism suspects was torture. This practice, which ended in 2003, was used on only three suspects. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Noting that half of all prison suicides are committed by prisoners held in isolation, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has prompted an independent assessment of solitary confinement in federal prisons. State prisons are equally vulnerable to Eighth Amendment challenges concerning whether inmates are subjected to “substantial risk of serious harm.”

America, with 5 percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration, which means a perpetual crisis of prisoners re-entering society, has generated understanding of solitary confinement's consequences when used as a long-term condition for an estimated 25,000 inmates in federal and state supermax prisons – and perhaps 80,000 others in isolation sections within regular prisons. Clearly, solitary confinement involves much more than the isolation of incorrigibly violent individuals for the protection of other inmates or prison personnel.

Federal law on torture prohibits conduct “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” And “severe” physical pain is not limited to “excruciating or agonizing” pain, or pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death.” The severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.

Supermax prisons isolate inmates from social contact. Often prisoners are in their cells, sometimes smaller than 8 feet by 12 feet, 23 hours a day, released only for a shower or exercise in a small fenced-in outdoor space. Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds.

The first supermax began functioning in Marion, Ill., in 1983. By the beginning of this century there were more than 60 around the nation, and solitary-confinement facilities were in most maximum-security prisons. In an article (“Hellhole”) in the March 30, 2009, New Yorker, Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes on public health issues, noted, “One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction.” And those who are most incapacitated by solitary confinement are forced to remain in it because they have been rendered unfit for “the highly social world of mainline prison or free society.” Last year, The New York Times reported that of the prisoners sent to solitary confinement in California's Pelican Bay prison because of gang affiliation, “248 have been there for 5 to 10 years; 218 for 10 to 20 years; and 90 for 20 years or more.”

Two centuries ago, solitary confinement was considered a humane reform, promoting reflection, repentance – penitence; hence penitentiaries – and rehabilitation. Quakerism influenced the design of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829 with a regime of strict solitude. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited it:

“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 I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court said of solitary confinement essentially what Dickens had said: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide.” Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence.

Mass incarceration is expensive (California spends almost twice as much on prisons as on universities) and solitary confinement costs, on average, three times as much per inmate as in normal prisons. And remember: Most persons now in solitary confinement will someday be back on America's streets, some of them rendered psychotic by what are called correctional institutions.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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10 Comments

Howard Last in Wyoming said:

Mr. Will it almost breaks my heart that these fine outstanding citizens (or illegal aliens) are in solitary confinement. Maybe what we need is more executions preferably public hangings. (If it was good enough for our Founding Fathers it is good enough for me.)

My only concern is when Barry and company with his Gestapo (Homeland Security) starts putting citizens away who are exercising their Constitutional Rights (in this case gunownership). And most of us remember what happened on April 19 when the British Crown tried it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 1:08 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

I know a group of Neo-Marxists, that should be locked in a solitary confinement cell, until January-2017. Give them only a flashlight and copies of the US Constitution of James Madison! Durbin and Reid kould have adjacent cells. Klub Gitmo for Communist Instigators!!

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 6:34 AM

Patriot1775@patriott1775 in MD said:

George; interesting article, however, what do you propose be the solution? I have a couple in mind that most likely wouldn't be acceptable to today's PC world. The AZ sheriff has a pretty good idea, yet he gets hammered daily for keeping the state safe. I'm an eye for an eye guy. I don't care if the death penalty deters crime or not. One thing I know it does do is to save the taxpayer approximately 65K per year for each murderer we don't have to feed, clothe, provide medical, dental and eye services for. That's in addition to the heart, kidney and other body parts replacements.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 9:28 AM

Dick Belmont in Fergus Falls, MN said:

Perhaps, Mr. Will, You and your like minded friends could accept these prisoners into your homes for their incarceration. The Government could then reimburse you for your service, but then I'm sure you would want to do this pro bono out of humanitarian concerns.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 10:06 AM

David S. in Baton Rouge, LA said:

I have plenty of decency. I would make sure to give all these serial killers and murderer a last meal before I offered him/her a choice: do you want a rope or a bullet?

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 10:17 AM

Master Gunny in Tifton GA said:

Society can afford to grant mercy and tolerance for those who make mistakes. Crime however is not a mistake. One doesn't "accidentally" rob the local liquor store. Perhaps solitary confinement is cruel but is it less cruel to mingle prison rapists with other prisoners? How do we control criminals who have lost any any vestage of compassion or human decency?

The truth is that we have become so concerned for the "rights" of the predators in our society that jail has lost its ability to induce fear into a would-be criminal. A society too weak to defend itself deserves to be preyed upon. I find it difficult to find empathy for a class of people who have struck out at all of us by criminal behavior. Those who have committed violent acts simply have no place back in our midst, especially since our "rehabilitation" efforts are statistically an abysmal failure. I do get angry however at our "white collar prisons" where many people are imprisoned who seem to pose no "threat" to society. All should be warehoused in the same kind of facility, equally treated regardless of their crimes. We make distinctions wrongly when we think that a kid with a gun is less dangerous to us all than the former CEO with a computer or the forger with a pen.
A society must adopt a somewhat ruthless attitude towards criminals and not shirk from setting an example, if it is to survive. The bean-counters with their statistics who claim that harsh punishment is not a deterrent ignore the fact that we'll never know who did, or didn't, commit a crime based on the assurance of swift and severe punishment. Their numbers are meaningless. One thing is sure, a murdered executed will never murder again.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 11:35 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

Other countries don't incarcerate in a country club atmosphere. Criminals should be dealt harsh punishments to fit the crime. Why does it take 20 years to apply a death sentence? If they kill someone, hang em high next week.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 12:50 PM

Howard Last in Wyoming replied:

wjm, Thomas Jefferson crime prevention program when he was governor of Virginia was similar. If you were convicted of murder on Tuesday, they hung you on Wednesday. Only exception was if you were convicted on Sarurday, they waited until Monday to hang you.

Friday, February 22, 2013 at 12:38 AM

Cepat2 in Los Angeles CA said:

Mr. Will's concerns about solitary confinement lack perspective. Virtually all those in solitary confinement are murderers, many times multiple murderers. If left with other humans they will continue to murder. Arguing the morality of capital punishment or permanent separation from other humans falls on very dear ears to those who have suffered the loss of loved ones at the hands of these predators. The very notion of release of a convicted murderer into society is the great injustice which must be addressed.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 7:24 PM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas said:

This is the money quote:

"America, with 5 percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of its prisoners."

If we didn't imprison so many people for victimless crimes this would not be a problem. At the very least it would be a MUCH smaller one.

We USED to be the "Land of the Free." The Prison-Industrial Complex is out of control - and Republicans are just as guilty as Democrats - maybe more.

Friday, February 22, 2013 at 10:11 AM