As always, PBS’s Frontline has a great special on Solitary Confinement in the United States, which you can view below:
Across the United States, some 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement and even though the U.N. suggests that beyond 15 days in solitary constitutes torture (and that any amount of solitary for someone with a mental illness constitutes torture — and a lot of those in solitary are mentally ill), most are in there for months on end. Some, like Albert Woolfox, has been in solitary for over 42 years. That’s extraordinary. We’re the only Western country to utilize solitary.
Brief primer: Progressives in the 1800s thought solitary would be a way to reform prisoners because of the isolationism. But predictably, isolationism literally made people fucking crazy. We’re social beings. Isolate us and we’ll go crazy. Add in total control and you can see the issue. Anyhow, it saw a resurgence in the 1980s as a viable form of punishment. Again, most of the science says it will make you go crazy.
The good news is, Maine’s state prison system where Frontline filmed this, has seen a drop of 50% in number of solitary inmates, which is spearheaded by a forward-thinking warden. Yet, there’s still the very real problem of dealing with the abhorrent nature of solitary confinement with the reality that some of these fuckers are goddamn dangerous. And not only that, but a lot of them go directly from solitary back to the streets, which is a literal recipe for disaster. (One inmate got out and went and killed the pod’s lead staffer in his home.)
Most spend 23 hours, maybe even 24 hours, in confinement except for that one hour, if they get it, to exercise. Many manage to get razors and harm themselves. Or they just disrupt the staffers by flooding their rooms, pushing feces out under the door and all other manner of nuisance. Staffers think they “fake” being mentally ill to get out of solitary. Maybe or maybe they are mentally ill. Who knows…
Still, aside from our immigration policy and our War on Drugs (which ties into this), solitary confinement has to be the most barbaric, ongoing problem in the United States. One problem is that some of the prisons, especially Pelican Bay in California, sees prison overpopulation and a solution for them is solitary. One way to cut back the number of inmates in solitary, then, is to work on reducing the overall prison population. And that goes to the War on Drugs…Alas, I digress.
Well-worth watching, if you get the chance.