Solitary Confinement Destroys Minds


M. Rogers

A still from the contraversial video released by ABC News in Australia that told the disturbing story of a man who spent five years in solitary confinement.

Meghan Rogers, Opinion Editor

Life in prisons is largely unknown to the public. Though recently publicized in television programs like Orange is the New Black, the real scene behind bars is not commonly revealed. The term solitary confinement is known to most as when “the worst of the worst” prisoners are locked away for the safety of others. However, this is not the case. Solitary confinement is unethical because it fits the definition of torture. Instead of being locked away, harmful prisoners should be able to receive the extra help they need to recover.
Solitary policies vary from state to state in the United States, but most are consistent with conditions such as confinement behind steel, cramped, and often windowless cells for 22-24 hours a day. For prisoners in solitary confinement, recreation involves being taken in handcuffs and shackles to another, larger solitary cell where they are permitted to pace alone for an hour before being returned to their cell. They have limited contact to others aside from their guard, infrequent phone calls, rare non-contact family visits, and extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programs. They suffer mental torture such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, forced insomnia, and extreme temperatures.
The fact of the matter is that people who are kept in solitary confinement suffer irreversible psychological damage. Those kept in solitary are commonly those with mental illnesses who have difficulty conforming to prison regulations, which are typically  those who are the most vulnerable and not the most violent. Prisoners can be placed in solitary for a wide variety of reasons, including punishment while under investigation, suspicion of gang involvement, retribution for political activism, or to fill the expensive rooms. It costs significantly more to house a prisoner in solitary than it does to keep a prisoner in the general cells. Nationally, it has been estimated that the average cost of a year in solitary costs taxpayers $75,000, while housing a regular prisoner is $25,000. Most of these expenses comes from paying the personal guards for each inmate.
Prisoners placed in solitary are typically mentally ill initially, but those who aren’t will have severely deteriorated by the time they are released. Those in solitary suffer from Special Housing Unit Syndrome, or SHU Syndrome. Symptoms include visual auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia and paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, distortions of time and perceptions, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and increased risk of suicide. Frequently, prisoners are released directly to the streets after spending years in isolation. Long-term solitary confinement goes beyond the problem of healthy prison conditions to pose a public safety problem.
In August 2012, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel punishments, Juan Mendez, concluded that even 15 days in solitary constitutes as torture because that is the point at which irreversible harmful psychological effects occur. Most prisoners have been isolated for much longer, often months or even years. Some spend more than 25 years in solitary.
Solitary confinement has gained recent attention due to to recent California Hunger Strikes by prisoners protesting solitary conditions. Solitary confinement fits the definition of torture as stated in many international human rights treaties. The UN Convention Against Torture defined 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 based on discrimination.
Solitary confinement should not be practiced because it is unethical and detrimental to prisoners. Prisoners deemed mentally unfit to be kept in the general population should be placed in solitary cells, but not under the conditions of present solitary confinement. Solitary prisoners should be given extra rehabilitation and psychological therapy to eventually be released into the general prisoner population.

The Editorial Board votes 6-1 that solitary confinement is unethical and should no longer be practiced.