The Dimensions of Solitude

By Daniel Teehan –

If you were passing by Frist on your way to class on Thursday, you might have noticed that the perpetually hyped rugby biker had a solemn companion: a student silently occupying a seven by nine foot cell. For those of you who didn’t have the chance to stop and learn more, I’ll try to clarify things a bit.

The student in the cell was one of 23 volunteers participating in 7×9, a piece of performance art put on by Princeton’s Student’s for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) as part of Prison Awareness Week. SPEAR, a student activist group (of which I am a member), created 7×9 as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the troubling widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons.

There are myriad problems with our criminal justice and law enforcement systems: from the groups that are under discriminatory scrutiny by police, to problematic mandatory minimum and plea bargaining for sentencing to the various problems with private prisons, But to me, solitary confinement represents the most shameful of these practices.

Solitary confinement is a punishment that originated in the late 18th century as an attempt at reforming prisoners and immediately came under criticism from prominent international observers like Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens. Sometime after its inefficacy was formally acknowledged by the Supreme Court in the case In Re Medley (1890), the practice fell out of widespread use. That would have been the end of the story, had it not been for the war on drugs.

As a result of surging prison populations, and in an attempt to stifle gang activity, the 1970s and 1980s bore witness to the birth of the super-maximum security prison (“supermax”) and the proliferation of solitary confinement.  While the contemporary implementation of solitary varies by facility and state, the 80,000 prisoners who are estimated to be in solitary daily share most of the same hardships. Prisoners in solitary are in complete isolation for 22-23 hours of the day, receiving their meals through a slot and given no social interaction. For the remaining hour or two, prisoners are allowed to go “outside,” a term which can sometimes refer to a walled-in pen.

While solitary was once meant to target hardened criminals and gang members, it has come to be used against certain target populations, including immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities and children. Moreover, it has become a fix-all solution to minor prison disciplinary issues, and is applied in a knee-jerk way to infractions as minor as smoking in an undesignated area, littering, or wasting food. However, there is arguably no group affected more than the mentally ill.

Photo Credit: Princeton SPEAR

Photo Credit: Princeton SPEAR

While the issue of using prison as a repository for the mentally ill is an issue in itself, the 20 percent of the prison population with mental illness pales in comparison to the estimated 33 to 50 percent of prisoners in solitary who are mentally ill. For these people, the harms of solitary are compounded, and sessions with psychiatrists and counselors can be infrequent and irregular. According to the American Psychological association, when subjected to solitary, “inmates’ psychiatric conditions will clinically deteriorate or not improve.” And yet we keep putting them there.

As it turns out, the psychological effects of isolation upon fundamentally social human beings are manifested even in inmates with no history of mental illness. Formerly healthy people forced to endure long stretches of solitary frequently descend into madness: shrieking and pounding on walls, falling into catatonic states, or engaging in various forms of highly disturbing self mutilation.

In the prison setting, this psychological damage can have serious consequences. Prisoners subjected to long stretches of solitary have trouble readjusting to the regular population and can act out, landing them back in solitary and creating a destructive cycle. This same factor contributes to the higher rate of recidivism for inmates released directly from solitary to the street. Finally, tragically, and yet unsurprisingly, the psychological toll of solitary often exerts itself in the ultimate act of desperation. 50 percent of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement despite the fact that prisoners in solitary only make up around 3.5% of the total population.

Photo Credit: Princeton SPEAR

Photo Credit: Princeton SPEAR

In the face of all this, it should be unsurprising that I consider solitary confinement a cruel and unusual punishment that should have no place in our system of corrections. The classification of solitary as torture is shared by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez. However, I’m a pragmatist; I realize that solitary isn’t going away overnight. At the very least, solitary should be limited to mentally healthy inmates who display violent or gang-related behavior and its use should be limited to no more than 10 days. I think that these are reasonable goals to work towards.

In the end, solitary confinement is an issue that at once encompasses and surpasses all other issues within the criminal justice system. It is used as a tool against every vulnerable group within the system: minorities, children, immigrants, mentally ill, and those going through withdrawals. Its use doesn’t make sense from conservative standpoints: it costs up to three times as much per prisoner per year, and it leads to higher rates of prison violence and recidivism. It is thus easy to appeal to a vast range of audiences with the various arguments against solitary confinement, but because the people that it affects receive little sympathy from the American public, there are not enough people advocating for a change. So don’t let 7×9 just be some novel attraction you ogled at for a few minutes on Thursday; join SPEAR in working to help end this cruel and all too usual punishment.

Read more about the latest news in solitary confinement here

Learn more about Princeton SPEAR here: keep an eye out for an upcoming video about solitary

Contact me at dteehan@princeton.edu with any questions or comments about this article

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