The shameful barbarity of solitary confinement

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan tackled solitary confinement yesterday, and the facts are depressing as hell.

The focus of his article is on solitary confinement in Texas prisons, and a report from the ACLU of Texas that details the cruel and counterproductive results solitary has on prisoners and the rehabilitation process.  The report states that the average length a prisoner spends in solitary in Texas is four years. From the report:

“Everyday from dusk to dawn theres noise, banging, clanking, yelling, screaming. Everyday someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves. Everyday theres fire and floods and complete chaos & hate. Everyday there’s loneliness. I woke up last night to someone screaming ‘Let Me Out of Here’ (again) over and over with so much anguish there was no doubt he was screaming from his very soul. But he was just screaming what we are all thinking. Everyday is a challenge here. A challenge against insanity.”


This endangers the public as well as wastes money – the ACLU of Texas report claims solitary confinement costs Texas at least $46 million per year. Research shows that solitary severely deteriorates an inmate’s social skills and mental health. After their release, people who suffered through solitary have a greater chance of committing more crimes and suffering severe mental disorders. From the American Journal of Public Health, via Practical Ethics:

We found that acts of self-harm were strongly associated with assignment of inmates to solitary confinement. Inmates punished by solitary confinement were approximately 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm after we controlled for length of jail stay, SMI [serious mental illness], age, and race/ethnicity.”

Solitary confinement is ultimately another weapon law enforcement and politicians use as a way of signaling to their constituents that they are tough on crime. Many people, sadly, agree with the practice because it satisfies their urge to see evil-doers get their comeuppance. But such simplistic – and blood-thirsty – attitudes only lead to more problems.

One thing that would greatly help is to improve our country’s mental health system. To give these people the help they need so that they may get better and eventually be integrated into society once more. Or, at the very least, to reduce the chances that some of the more violent and ill will, upon their release, go out, damaged even more by their time in solitary, and hurt innocent people. But that might require looking at inmates as flawed human beings who nonetheless deserve some empathy, and that may be too much to expect from some of us. From Practical Ethics:

Solitary punishment can have a legitimate penal purpose. However, one doesn’t have to be a bleeding-heart to believe that it is likely to be a bad idea except in very exceptional circumstances. Politicians who seek to deploy it should justify its use by reference to evidence of tangible benefits and not hollow rhetoric.

Solitary confinement is torture. That point cannot be argued in good faith. It has no place in civil society and should be abolished in favor or more humane, ethical, and effective solutions. We cannot continue to treat our fellow human beings in this manner and claim to hold some sort of moral high ground.


Author: El Burro

A leftist factory worker who dreams of being a writer.

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