Lately, solitary confinement in jails and prisons in the US have come under critical observation from courts, statehouses and even the President Barack Obama. Despite being faced with challenges, solitary confinement still remains to be a common correctional tool used to punish misbehaving inmates, put an end to disorder and handle prisoners who are hard to control. A stay in solitary usually lasts up to 23 hours each day but it’s not uncommon to hear some inmates be holed up alone for weeks, months and even years.
When put in solitary confinement, prisoners are left alone in a cell that is 6-by-10 feet. It is where inmates believed to be dangerous are placed and it’s also used as a form of protective custody.
Recently, solitary confinement reforms have been put in place. In January 2016, Obama announced the ban of solitary confinement on juveniles who are punished for low-level offenses in federal prison. New York City ended solitary confinement for minors in December 2014 while corrections officials in California, Maine, Washington and Michigan have moved to reduce the number of inmates serving time in solitary confinement.
But is there truly a benefit to putting a person in solitary? Or are the critics of the punishment right in stating it leads to mental issues? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of solitary confinement:
List of Pros of Solitary Confinement
1. It keeps a prisoner protected from other inmates.
When a prisoner is considered dangerous to themselves or others, they are put into solitary confinement. Other than that, reasons an inmate may land in solitary include being suspected of organizing or engaging in illegal activities outside the prison. Also, putting someone in solitary is a form of protective custody (this can happen when an inmate is a pedophile or witness and therefore will most likely be harmed by other inmates).
2. It keeps a prison safe.
Solitary confinement proponents believe that imposing this form of punishment helps keep a prison safe. This may be true in cases where several inmates can’t get along with each other. How would it feel for prison officers to deal with fights on a regular basis?
In the mid-20th century, prisoners whose sexual orientation, race or religion were different from those in the general population were put into solitary confinement. This was done to protect them from attacks by other prisoners and as a way to keep the peace within a jail.
3. It may reform the character of a prisoner.
This one is highly up for debate because the effect of solitary confinement on the mental health of a prisoner is one of the criticisms of the common prison punishment. Proponents state that solitary was implemented on both sides of the Atlantic to reform convicts. It is believed that when someone is left alone with their conscience (and the Bible), they would be able to better reflect internally and see the error of their ways. As a result, they would emerge from solitary a different person.
List of Cons of Solitary Confinement
1. It is a degrading treatment of a person.
UN bodies including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have stated that solitary confinement, particularly that of young people under the age of 18, is cruel, inhumane and degrading. A lot would also argue that solitary is a violation of a person’s human rights.
Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist, has spent time interviewing prisoners in solitary confinement. In a study, he found that about a third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” He has also concluded that solitary confinement causes a specific psychiatric syndrome, one that is characterized by panic attacks, overt paranoia, diminished impulse control, hypersensitivity to external stimuli and difficulties with concentration, thinking and memory.
2. It leads to mental health disorders.
The effects of solitary confinement on the mental health of prisoners have been much discussed. Proponents of this form of punishment would argue that inmates would emerge stronger after having more than enough time for internal reflection. On the other hand, critics of this form of punishment believe that people who are isolated are vulnerable and would be at risk for developing mental health issues like schizophrenia.
Being left alone for long periods might lead someone to experience delusions and hallucinations. As such, they would become paranoid or display symptoms of mental distress. When this happens, they may lose their grip on reality.
A study by McGill University paid male graduate students to stay in small chambers that only had a bed (the experiment was on sensory deprivation). Although they could leave to use the bathroom, nothing else was provided. The plan was to observe them for six weeks but no one lasted more than seven days. Some of the students suffered from hallucinations and one of the collaborators in the study said that one student “could see nothing but dogs.”
3. It can make prisoners more dangerous.
One of the reasons for putting an inmate in solitary is to protect them from themselves or shield them from attacks by fellow inmates. However, some prisoners put in solitary have been shown to engage in self-mutilation (the rates of which are higher compared to those in the general population).
Prisoners in solitary also exhibit suicidal tendencies or have committed suicide. A study found that nearly half of all suicides committed at a prison system in California fro 1999 to 2004 were attributed to suicide. In 1995, a federal prison study also found that 63% of suicides happened among inmates who were locked in “special housing status” (this could mean solitary or psychiatric seclusion cells).
Solitary confinement is a terrible idea, be it in prison or out of it. Candie Hailey, a woman who spent more than two years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, is still trying to recover from the trauma of spending time alone for 23 hours in a 6-by-10-foot cell. While arguments over an inmate’s safety look to be valid reasons for imposing solitary confinement, surely there has to be some other way to keep prisoners and prisons safe. Whether that day will come or not, one thing’s for sure: the debate surrounding solitary confinement will continue.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.