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The Effects of Solitary Confinements

By: Tatiana Figarola

In the early 1800s, the United States began the practice of imprisoning inmates in solitary cells as a method of rehabilitation. This practice began based on the Quaker belief that isolated prisoners left with just a Bible would use the time to repent and find introspection. However, the results were the opposite. A large percentage of inmates who were isolated went insane, committed suicide, or were not able to rejoin society afterwards. The use of long term solitary confinement leads to “a considerable number of prisoners… fallen into a semi-fatuous condition…and others became violently insane,” as the Supreme Court reported. 

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Despite evidence of its negative effects to prisoners, the practice made a comeback about a century later. Solitary cells are now sterile boxes instead of underground holes used in the past, but the psychological repercussions are the same. It is estimated that more than 80,000 inmates in America today are being held in solitary confinement. They are confined for 22 – 24 hours a day, with little to no contact with other human beings for that time. They get limited family visits, limited access to educational and rehabilitative programs, as well as inadequate medical and mental health treatment. They are given restricted reading material and personal property, if any. In some cases, inmates in solitary confinement are subjected to physical torture, such as hog-tying and restraint chairs. Lastly, they may also be subjected to “no – touch” torture, such as sensory deprivation, permanent extreme lighting and temperatures, and forced insomnia. Inmates may be sentenced to solitary confinement from a few days to years.

So, what exactly happens to someone kept in long term solitary confinement? Numerous studies have documented a long list of the negative effects of solitary confinement. These include visual and auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity, insomnia, paranoia, distortions of time and perception, PTSD, heart palpitations, lethargy, heightened rates of hypertension, social withdrawal, depression, and more. Along with these mental effects, suicidal tendencies increase as well, as half of all successful suicides in US prisons occur in solitary cells. With an estimated 2.4m people behind bars in the United States, isolated prisoners make up only about 3% of the entire prison population. Solitary confinement is commonly used on inmates with existing mental illnesses, and when put in confinement, their conditions worsen. Even if an inmate is put in without an existing illness, their mental health is clearly being compromised. Unfortunately, many inmates are released onto the streets directly after serving in solitary confinement. They are completely isolated from society, then expected to return to it with no problem. Doing this creates a public safety and community health issue, as these former inmates most likely can not return to society after their complete confinement.

Another question that many have considered is whether or not solitary confinement classifies as torture. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, who have repeatedly condemned solitary confinement,  defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, intimidation, or for a reason based on discrimination.  As inmates are subjected to significant mental suffering, it seems as though the practice does qualify as torture.

If solitary confinement is known for harming inmates and for having little to no benefits, why is it being used? Inmates are confined for many reasons. Some are placed in long term confinement for major infractions, such as being violent towards themselves, officers, or other inmates. However, some are placed in confinement for minor infractions, such as talking back to an officer or being caught with a pack of cigarettes. Other times, inmates are placed in confinement without breaking any rules, as solitary confinement can also be used as a tool to manage gangs.

Politicians and public figures, such as President Obama, Pope Francis, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have openly denounced long-term confinement. The U.S. Senate has called for reforms from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Multiple faith-based organizations have accompanied confinement survivors in fighting for an end to the practice. June E. Mendez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel punishment, has concluded that 15 days should be the limit for anyone held in solitary confinement because after that point research shows that harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.

Along with these figures, I believe that long-term solitary confinement is a major problem with our prisons today. If inmates needs to be isolated to protect themselves or others, solitary confinement should be the last resort, and should be limited. Research has shown that inmates begin to develop irreversible mental effects after about 10-15 days; there should be a restriction on confinement that does not allow someone to stay in solitary confinement for more than that time. After someone has served time in prison, they should be able to return to society as a productive member. If we continue to torture inmates while they serve their time, especially while knowing its detrimental effects, how will they return as functional members of society?

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