Solitary Confinement Amounting to Torture

Image of concrete walls allowing some sunshine with a small window near the top.
jmiller291. Solitary Confinement, Old Geelong Gaol 7. Creative Commons for Flickr.

In the United States, the earliest experiments with solitary confinement began over two centuries ago, during the Enlightenment. Champions of the idea of natural rights, thinkers of the era found that public corporate punishment was incompatible with the development of a free citizen. Instead, silence and solitude would allow prisoners to reflect and that would induce repentance that would drive prisoners to live a more responsible life, making individuals the instrument of their own punishment. However, as the United States’ first silent prisons and penitentiaries were publicized, renowned nineteenth-century thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited these institutions to observe these revolutionary systems. Once intrigued, these icons now condemned these silent prisons as de Tocqueville remarked,

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, itkills.

As other physicians and experts echoed their concerns, reporting the high risk and evidence of insanity and death of inmates existing in solitude, it gained the attention of the United States Supreme Court which influenced a new philosophy in correctional administration and gradually reduced the regularity of the practice.

This period of relief lasted until prisons began using solitary confinement to segregate more “threatening” and “dangerous” prisoners who were considered a risk to the safety of other prisoners and staff. Then, retribution and deterrence replaced rehabilitation as the professional purpose of corrections. As the U.S. responded by institutionalizing longer sentences, building more prisons, and abolishing parole, the use of solitary confinement rapidly increased with prison growth.

Today, the United States not only incarcerates more people than any other nation, but we also expose more of these people to solitary confinement than any other nation. The United States holds around 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement typically as punishment, as a tactic to control overcrowded institutions, and as safety from or for the general population.

As individuals, inmates tell us what it is like in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, your world is a gray concrete box. You may spend around 23 hours a day alone in your cell which are only furnished with a toilet, sink, and bed. When prisoners are escorted out of their cells, they are first placed in restraints through the cuff port and sometimes with additional leg or waist chains and tethered by the hooks on their cuffs to an officer. Prisoners are controlled by bodily restraints, with pervasive and unforgiving round the clock surveillance, and the restricting hallways and cells they exist in. They are lead to solitary exercise each day and a brief shower three times a week then back to their cells. Confined to their own concrete cells, prisoners are both physically and psychologically removed from anyone else. Prisoners depend on officers to bring them anything they may need and are allowed to have such as toilet paper, books, or letters they may receive. Many prisoners relate with dark thoughts that haunt them in isolation. Many become angry and hateful behind compliance.

Where many express anger, they all express a struggle to maintain dignity and a sense of self or humanity. Being alone, prisoners forget how to interact with others. Feeling as though they have nothing to live for in isolation, prisoners may give up on these things. Many interviews describe watching others who were locked in indefinite solitary choosing between giving up by either through suicide or turning into an unfeeling and uncaring creature. Correctional facilities’ workers express their concerns as to why and how they become desensitized through strict policy, regulation, and the specialized emotional stance necessary to interact with these prisoners. Acting as servants for the lives of some bad apples, observing civilized men be reduced to the natural man, and acting in adherence to authority with little voice heard by superiors, this work requires a specialized emotional stance.

Instead of regular and healthy social relationships important to human survival, these prisoners are embedded in a structure that extends itself into them. It enters their mind and sometimes switches off the human inside or sometimes forces it to become violent enough to compete. In this way, it also robs them of self-determination, liberty, and other forms of autonomy.

Image of protesters of solitary confinement holding signs connecting solitary confinement to torture and mental illness.
Felton Davis. 16-11-23 02 Union Square Vigil. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Because the practice of solitary confinement is a global one and brings claims of widespread abuse, the UN special rapporteur presented his report, or evaluation, of solitary confinement. This rapporteur defined prolonged solitary confinement as isolation for more than fifteen days because studies show that the effects of solitary confinement may become irreversible after this point as the rapporteur concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

International and domestic laws prohibit all forms of Racial Discrimination, which address variations in solitary confinement’s demographics, and rights of persons with disabilities which protect individuals with mental, or other, illnesses. They also guarantee the rights of women and children or juveniles, which are especially vulnerable under conditions of solitary confinement or isolation. Both sides address the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. More specifically, they address conditions of solitary confinement which always may apply to every individual.

Domestically, the Eighth Amendment reveals how the United States Constitution addresses Solitary Confinement. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel or unusual punishment” on someone convicted of a crime. This allows these prisoners to challenge their conditions while in custody and the actions of prison officials. To do this, prisoners must first show that the challenged condition is “sufficiently serious” and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the condition. Close observation of court decisions reveals that there is no organized methodology to determine what makes a condition “sufficiently serious”. This decision is made in each case by the personal standards of judges. The judge may question why the prisoner was placed there; however, the Supreme Court has not made a ruling whether intent should play a part in this evaluation. Courts disagree whether it should matter why the individual was placed in solitary confinement. Also, the Amendment did not answer when a prison condition is punishment or not. The debate remains whether the effect of the conditions on the prisoner or the intent of officials makes them punishment. In court, Eighth Amendment analysis hinges on the motivations of state actors and prison officials it is supposed to act as a check against. The conditions of the Eighth Amendment fail to protect prisoners from inhumane treatment through the scope of prison officials’ intent and judges’ objective analysis.

The ICCPR is international law that prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It later states that people deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of a person and the treatment approach for prisoners should be aimed at efficiently improving their reformation and social rehabilitation.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Mandela Rules that prohibited restrictions and disciplinary sanctions that could amount to torture or cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, such as Indefinite Solitary Confinement, Prolonged solitary confinement, or to place a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell. It defined solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact and prolonged solitary confinement for any time period over fifteen days. It states that solitary confinement should only be used as a last case resort for the shortest time possible and given due process to each case. Finally, it paid special attention to protect prisoners with disabilities which may be magnified, and especially vulnerable women and children from solitary confinement.

Through these treaties and agreements, States do not only assume obligations internationally but to their own people as well. Just like our own constitution, these international laws were agreed to and are legally binding to regulate the conduct of states with their citizens. However, without international forces to enforce and regulate these agreements, states may ignore or lose sight of their importance.

Despite these resolutions, Domestic laws are vague so that it is doubtful they meet minimum requirements regarding the ones set by human rights instruments. This creates debate and little guarantees in the legal system. They also undermine fundamental guarantees of due process, are applied randomly, and do not protect the prisoners’ rights.

Today tens of thousands of humans remain alone in concrete boxes in the United States. This report concludes that their conditions are emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. They are destructive because it robs us of many things that makes life human and bearable like stimulus through social interaction and interaction with the natural world. Under total control and out of the public eye, people may be subjected to incredible human rights violations. By allowing our government to ignore these people, we are accepting this indifference towards others under its care. By ignoring their human rights, in this way, we diminish our own.

If The Steel Walls Could Talk: The Abuse of Human Rights Through The Use Of Solitary Confinement

This prisoner held in solitary confinement is kept in isolation with little sunlight.
Source:Yahoo Images

One of the saddest stories that I ever listened to was the story of Kalief Broder. He was a young man from the Bronx who spent three years in jail because he could not pay for his bail after being arrested in 2010.  I heard about this story while watching 13th, the documentary that examines the connection of slavery to the mass incarceration of Black people in America. While I looked at Broder’s experience through the lens of racial injustice, there was another piece to this disheartening story. Broder also spent two years in solitary confinement without being convicted of a crime or having a trial. Broder was finally released from prison in 2013; two years later, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his parents home. 

Kalief Broder, a victim of the effects of solitary confinement.
Source: Yahoo Images

After making the connection between solitary confinement and mental illness, I started doing more research on this and thought about it in the context of human rights. The connection stems from the lack of connection between human rights and the rights of prisoners. In the context of solitary confinement and human rights, the overpractice of solitary confinement violates the human rights of prisoners. These violations include torture, mental abuse lack of resources such as sunlight and social interaction. To give a background on human rights in the scope of prisoners, their rights have been recognized by the United Nations to protect those rights. According to the Office of the High Commissioner in the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the basic principles on the treatment and conditions inmates were adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations in December of 1990. One of the most profound statements stated that “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings”.  Although their rights have been recognized by the human rights community, most of the rights of prisoners are often abused due to this underlying notion that perhaps prisoners are not even seen as humans and do not need their rights to be protected. If their rights and humanity were protected by the state, then their rights would not be abused.

To give a context to the global prison system, the United States plays a big role within it. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the highest incarceration rate worldwide. The use of solitary confinement is also used widely within the United States. The definition of solitary confinement is the isolation of a prisoner in a confined cell as a form of punishment. According to the Human Rights Watch, prisoners are “Prisoners in solitary typically spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors”. While confined they do not have any contact with other inmates besides a prison guard that serves them their meals through a small opening on the door.  The National Public Radio  did a special series on the practice of solitary confinement. In the series, the hosts explain that the first documented use of solitary confinement in 1829. It was used in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Based in Quaker belief, it was seen as a place where criminals were locked in a stone cell with a Bible to pray and repent for the crimes. Although it was seen as a place for rehabilitation, many criminals went insane and committed suicide while being locked in the cells. After this, solitary confinement slowly stopped being practiced for many decades. 

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, one of the earliest places where solitary confinement was used in the 1800s.
Source: Yahoo Images

This practice was proven to be detrimental to the mental health of human beings over the course of decades. As the statement proves to be true, it is still used widely in the United States. The Human Rights Watch has offered research to the growing use of solitary confinement in prisons. The research states that solitary confinement in US prisons is imposed for different reasons, but most commonly it is used as punishment for breaches of discipline such as disciplinary segregation to manage prisoners considered to be particularly difficult or dangerous through administrative segregation. The increase in solitary confinement in the United States has occurred primarily through administrative segregation, and particularly the segregation of prisoners in special super-maximum security facilities, which are built solely for this purpose. Solitary confinement is not only used to punish prisoners physically but also mentally. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, has condemned the use of solitary confinement, finding that the imposition of this punishment can constitute torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The effects of solitary confinement are so damaging that it has been deemed as torture for human beings. According to the Human Rights Campaign, prisoners that are held in solitary confinement, they do not have opportunities for meaningful social interaction with other prisoners. The contact that they do have with officers is very brief and interaction only occurs when prisoners are being handed food through a small door. Phone calls and any visits by family and loved ones are severely restricted or prohibited. During the week, prisoners are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space, sometimes indoors on a few times a week. They often have very little or no access to educational and recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation. Lastly, they are usually handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by correctional officers every time they leave their cells. This also goes into them not having any access to sunlight or adequate housing that it is fit for the shelter of any human being. The research from the American Civil Liberties Union shows that the practice of solitary confinement can also damage an inmate on the psychological level. There are quite a few destructive effects of solitary confinement that include perceptual distortions and hallucinations increased anxiety and nervousness, along with self mutilation, severe chronic depression, and lower levels of brain activity. 

Another issue with this is the use of solitary confinement for inmates who are mentally ill. Statistics from ACLU state that most experts would estimate that approximately 10 to 20 percent of all prisoners in United States prisons suffer from a mental illness.  One story noted from ACLU from a prisoner who was mentally ill who spent time in solitary confinement actually set himself on fire and succumbed from his burns while another prisoner hung himself with a washcloth. It was also noted that prisoners were found to have attempted or have committed suicide, ingested razors, or have  pummeled their heads against walls. The issue with solitary confinement is the damaging psychological effects that it can have on the individual. By limiting social interaction, the prison is depriving one of social interaction that  is crucial for psychological growth and when that is interrupted that could have a detrimental influence on the individual. For those that are released from prison, they still face psychological harm from their time spent in solitary confinement. Craig Haney, PhD is a member of the American Psychology Association and a professor of psychology at the University of California who evaluates the psychological effects of solitary confinement on a human being. He states that “one of the very serious psychological consequences of solitary confinement is that it renders many people incapable of living anywhere else.” Then, when prisoners are released into cells or back into society, they are often overwhelmed with anxiety.” They actually get to the point where they become frightened of other human beings,” he said. These long term effects from solitary confinement leave a damaging mark on the humanity of these people and mentally abuses their human rights to the worst degree.

The effects of solitary confinement has damaging effects on the mental psyche of prisoners shown by this prisoner who is being held in isolation.
Source: Yahoo Images

With all of these human rights abuses, there should be an effort to abolish solitary confinement in prisons all over the world. It has too many detrimental effects on human beings and abuses the rights of prisoners and as members of society. There have been efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union to abolish solitary confinement. Their statement reads: “Over the last two decades corrections systems have increasingly relied on solitary confinement as a prison management tool – even building entire institutions called “supermax prisons” where prisoners are held in conditions of extreme isolation, sometimes for years or decades. But solitary confinement jeopardizes our public safety, is fundamentally inhumane and wastes taxpayer dollars. We must insist on humane and more cost-effective methods of punishment and prison management”.  In order for this issue to be solved, there must be major reform within the prison system and more access to mental health resources and rehabilitation services for prisoners. It does not do any good to lock people into cages to the point where they do not even know that they are human anymore. Even though they have committed crimes, these people are still human beings and their rights deserve to be protected. 

a demonstration by the people of Pennsylvania to abolish the practice of solitary confinement
Source: Yahoo Images


Free and Uneasy

by Mary Johnson-Butterworth

When I visited the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum, I sat down at a booth where I was separated by plexiglass from a video of a prisoner who picked up a phone as I picked up my receiver.  This prisoner told me of his 12 years in solitary confinement and his struggles to survive, and then he shared his beautiful poem with me.  Given my recent passion for poetry, I felt that I had just had a karmic experience, and it affected me deeply.  I dedicate this poem to Mr. Ian Manuel, a brilliant writer, who is now free and currently resides in Florida.

the inside of Alcatraz
Outside this empty shell. Source: Derek Finch, Creative Commons

I am humbled to meet you

In a place defining legacy as atrocity.

Here in a cubicle with the glass between us,

I learn your stare before I sit;

Your stagnant gaze stings like lashes.

Lashes–but what do I know of lashes?


In terror, I reach for the receiver

While you do the same.

You introduce yourself to all who call

With a show of strength in sepia

As you share yourself on video.

Terror—but what do I know of terror?


You tell me of your bleak and solitary plight,

Of the fight with your tortured soul,

Of your twelve years in a cell alone

With no human breathing near you.

I have suffered my own confinements.

Solitary—but what do I know of solitary?


You speak of an exploration within–

Within your hourless term,

A timelost search for your voice

Within the breadth of your mind,

A mind that ever evades capture.

Capture—but what do I know of capture?


You proclaim the poem of your truth,

Well-versed in human pain,

Words meting out the inner you.

I listen with my newfound poet’s ear

To the meaning of your life.

Pain—but what do I know of pain?


Shocked by our common shred,

I return the receiver to the still shot

Of your shackled silence.

What reverberates for me now

Is of words you set aloft and free.

Poetry—for we two know of poetry.