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United States Politics

The Science of Solitary Confinement 326

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Joseph Stromberg writes in Smithsonian Magazine that while the practice of solitary confinement is being discontinued in most countries, it's become increasingly routine within the American prison system. It is estimated that between 80,000 and 81,000 prisoners are in some form of solitary confinement nationwide. Once employed largely as a short-term punishment, it's now regularly used as way of disciplining prisoners indefinitely, isolating them during ongoing investigations, coercing them into cooperating with interrogations and even separating them from perceived threats within the prison population at their request.

Most prisoners in solitary confinement spend at least 23 hours per day restricted to cells of 80 square feet, not much larger than a king-size bed, devoid of stimuli (some are allowed in a yard or indoor area for an hour or less daily), and are denied physical contact on visits from friends and family ... A majority of those surveyed experienced symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, chronic depression, while 41 percent reported hallucinations, and 27 percent had suicidal thoughts...

But the real problem is that solitary confinement is ineffective as a rehabilitation technique and indelibly harmful to the mental health of those detained achieving the opposite of the supposed goal of rehabilitating them for re-entry into society. Rick Raemisch, the new director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, voluntarily spent twenty hours in solitary confinement in one of his prisons and wrote an op-ed about his experience in The New York Times. 'If we can't eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use,' wrote Raemisch."
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The Science of Solitary Confinement

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  • by jmd ( 14060 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:25PM (#46362259)

    How sad the USA has become.

    • by alen ( 225700 )

      too bad the example in the linked article had multiple robbery convictions prior to being put in solitary and was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder while in prison

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:49PM (#46362643) Journal

      How sad the USA has become.

      If this actually struck us(at a population level) as 'sad' rather than 'fuck yeah! tough on crime!', I suspect we'd be in better shape.

    • ... and are denied physical contact on visits from friends and family ...

      It not just those in solitary who are denied physical contact with visitors - at least in some prisons - even minimum security prisons. A friend of mine was imprisoned (for disorderly conduct) for a month in a minimum security prison. The visitation rooms had a plexiglass partition separating the inmate from the visitors. The prison had no provisions for allowing visitors to have physical contact with inmates - not even spouses or children. The inmates were allowed contact with other inmates. Nevertheless,

    • by mrspoonsi ( 2955715 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @08:17PM (#46363995)
      Consider that these prisons are private companies that actually want prisoners, as prisoners = $$$. Then you can understand why the prison is not about rehabilitation, it wants damaged people who go back out, re-offend and come back to the prison, follow the money.
  • "Corrections" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dutchmaan ( 442553 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:27PM (#46362299) Homepage
    This is what happens when you have a society that is more interested in punishing people than reforming. It's as if to say "We don't believe you'll ever change, or are capable of changing so we're going to crush you instead." All you have to do is read a forum on any news story relating to a crime to get a realistic view on how people view "corrections" should be carried out.... and we call other countries barbaric.
    • by alen ( 225700 )

      jail in the USA will pay you to do work for pay and allow you to get a free college education if you're not a violent person and will follow the rules while in jail

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Were taken directly from the dark ages, and were never designed or intended to rehabilitate but to satisfy the victims desire for revenge. And of course wield the power of the state and show how much worse it can be when you don't conform

  • by Ichijo ( 607641 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:29PM (#46362325) Journal

    It's called "retributive justice," and ideally it isn't supposed to be personal, but until human judges are replaced with computer software, it will always be personal.

    Would it be so bad if the only role of justice were to protect society while rehabilitating the offender? Some murderers might get out after only a year if they are properly rehabilitated, and serial kleptomaniacs may stay locked away forever, but at least prisons would be a nicer place for them if they weren't meant to be a form of punishment. I think this would do wonders for eliminating crime.

    • Society needs revenge for certain crimes, for the sake of all our mental health. When we see evil people going unpunished, or even rewarded, it depresses us. Can you provide any rationale for why we should care so much about the comfort of a serial killer? Try to do so without appealing to some mystical, absolutist morality. Good luck.

      Note: we're talking about serious crimes here. Non-violent offenders shouldn't be facing prison time at all, let alone solitary.

      • Society needs revenge for certain crimes, for the sake of all our mental health.

        Quite the opposite, actually. The quest for revenge is detrimental to one's mental health.

        Can you provide any rationale for why we should care so much about the comfort of a serial killer?

        Because we're supposed to be better than serial killers, we're supposed to be humane individuals. Because maybe we got the wrong guy, and it's worse to torture the wrong guy than to just lock up the wrong guy (though that's still very very bad). Because if we're going to imprison that serial killer with other people, people who are not serial killers and will eventually return to society, it's important how that serial killer acts towards fellow inmates. Because if we're interested in how to keep people from turning into serial killers, it's important to study that serial killer, to interview them in an atmosphere of some trust.

        Non-violent offenders shouldn't be facing prison time at all, let alone solitary.

        No jail time for burglars, then? Or car thieves or bank robbers who bust in after closing time? Interesting.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The role of imprisonment in the justice system carries several desired outcomes. First, it acts as a deterrent to criminals by making it clear that there is a consequence to their actions. Second, it serves as punishment of a criminal. Third, it serves as a protection for society from an individual criminal by directly preventing repeat offenses. Fourth, it serves as an opportunity to rehabilitate a criminal and turn them into a potentially productive member of society. A fifth role that most people don't p

  • by surmak ( 1238244 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:32PM (#46362375)
    I think what the director did is a great first step. Too bad that every judge, prosecutor, and correctional officer does not get the same experience before they have the power to send someone to such a hell hole.
    • correct me if i'm wrong but isnt solitary confinement usually temporary and assigned by the wardens or guards rather than the judge? i've never hard of anyone being sentanced to life in solitary but i may be mistaken

      • by sconeu ( 64226 )

        RTFA. There are documented instances of prisoners spending 20 years in solitary.

        • yes i'm aware of that but was that decided by the judge/jury or after he was imprisoned by the wardens? I didn't see that mentioned

          • to be clear i was not making a statement i was asking a question that i didn't see addressed by the article

    • by Cederic ( 9623 )

      I'd recommend a full week - a day is easy (relatively) to sleep through, make it last.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      And did the prison staff know who he was? Or did he go in undercover, like in Brubaker/a?? [imdb.com]

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The health of a prisoner is the responsibility of the state. Allowing damage, including mental illness, to an inmate should be criminal. The use of solitary confinement is not acceptable. Denial of the basics such as free to read books, access to media and films, poor food quality are all modes of torture and are not part of a prison sentence.
    Yes, inmates are often bad people. But the catch is that prison workers, cops, the people that accuse, the people in th

  • by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:38PM (#46362469) Homepage Journal
    The US prison system is about profit first, punishment second, making an example third, more profit fourth, more punishment fifth, other things, and then maybe sometime much later down the line rehabilitation. They spend more money on laundry security than they do on conscious efforts to rehabiltate prisoners for re-entry into society.
    • by quietwalker ( 969769 ) <pdughi@gmail.com> on Thursday February 27, 2014 @06:07PM (#46362865)

      1. Remove a danger to society
      2. Acting as a deterrent
      3. As a punitive measure (strongly related to item #2)
      4. To provide rehabilitation

      To date, analysis[1] has shown that never in the verifiable recorded history of crime and punishment, has any prison, anywhere, ever had a non-negligible impact on recidivism rates. Some pre-established percentage of people continue to commit crimes after a jail sentence, regardless of changes to enable rehabilitation. Education, trade skills, access to medicine & counselors, 'nice' quarters, access to games and exercise, work release programs, etc - no appreciable impact.

      Even punishments like public shaming (very big in medieval times) have no impact on the average number of individuals willing to commit the crime again. Even torture (short of permanent harm) has no real lasting impact, though it does often result in the individuals using more effort to reduce the risks of getting caught.

      In short, prisons do not rehabilitate prisoners, and they never have.[2] [3]

      Pretending they they do, or can and then making screeching noises when they fail - or worse, throwing money at them so they can try yet another fad get-lawful-quick program is just irrational. Blaming the system for not working as one expects only shows the value of those expectations.

      Here's the takeaway: The only things prisons are good for is removing a danger from society and providing a punitive threat as a deterrent - and even that last one has only limited impact.

      For those interested in constructive comments, the fix is obvious and simple; spend that money on fixing those parts of society that give rise to crime. Focus on education, focus on a two-parent household, focus on employable skills, and so on.

      [1] - oy. Google it, read some books, and take a few criminal justice classes. Personally, I'd start with this book, http://www.amazon.com/CRIMINAL... [amazon.com] because it's a fascinating read, but your mileage may vary.
      [2] - though there's nothing to say they couldn't eventually. Maybe cryogenically freeze them and subliminally imprint upon them the desire to knit when they're stressed? Could work.
      [3] - Technically, life in prison works, in that they don't commit any more crimes, but the important point to note is that rehabilitation programs STILL have no impact on this rate. So it doesn't count either.

      • by Zalbik ( 308903 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @06:47PM (#46363267)

        [1] I googled it. The first few links showed the opposite.
        e.g. here [dropoutprevention.org]

        [2] Wow, I'm glad you told me about this google thing...you should really try it:
        Boston Reentry Initiative [crimesolutions.gov]

        For those interested in constructive comments, the fix is obvious and simple; spend that money on fixing those parts of society that give rise to crime. Focus on education, focus on a two-parent household, focus on employable skills, and so on

        I almost agree with you here, but I disagree that (as per most problems) the fix is either obvious or simple. Many problems require a variety of fixes to be tried, evaluated, and modified in order to come up with the most effective set of solutions.

        Should we focus on education: Yes
        Two-parent household: In some circumstances. What about the case of an alcoholic, abusive spouse? Single mothers? Dad who just takes off? Widows/widowers?
        Employable skills: Yes. I strongly believe that universities should be subsidized for degree programs that are determined to be "employable" and no subsidies or loans allowed for degree programs that are not. We have enough art history majors right now, thank you very much.

        That being said, I see no reason to also simultaneously not work on reforming, re-educating and reintegrating prisoners back into society as productive members. Many prisoners are the result of society dropping the ball on the items above, and are just helping to create the next generation of criminals.

        As with most things, it's not an either-or solution. Do both.

  • Prisoners should be treated humanely. I get that. What I would like to know is how many prisoners who were released after being confined in solitary for a long period of time are repeat offenders. I suspect that, given the horrible conditions of solitary, most of them would do anything to avoid going back to prison. If that is true, then it really is an effective rehabilitation technique, and ultimately reduces crime.
    • by qbast ( 1265706 )
      Problem is that after enough time in solitary, they are pretty much insane. Who knows what they do? And if seriously say that it *should* be horrible because it reduces crime, then why stop at putting someone in cage for years? There are many old and proven methods that do the same more quickly - standard beatings, rape, waterboarding, ripping off fingernails, electric current applied to genitals, etc. Hell, let's give everybody week long 'preview' at age of 10 - then we will have perfect crime-free societ
  • by ktakki ( 64573 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:50PM (#46362659) Homepage Journal

    I just did five years in Federal prison and did two stretches in the SHU (basically solitary), totaling about two months. First time was for drawing on a paper food service hat. Second time was for being a smartass to the prison shrink.

    Me, I didn't mind it so much. Peace and quiet (though occasionally you get a screamer on the range). Got some reading done. Meditated.

    But you only get to make one call every thirty days. No coffee, no commissary. The cops keep the place cold like a meat locker. Lights never go off.

    It's not for violent criminals. You get sucker punched or stomped and you go to the SHU for 30 days for an "investigation". You file a grievence against a staff member and you go in for a 90-day "investigation". You get the flu or scabies and you're in there for two weeks: quarantine.

    The really violent people end up on a USP or AD-Max in Florence, CO.

    I didn't mind the SHU because I enjoy a bit of solitude now and then. But in California, there are guys who've spent decades in the hole. That totally fucks you up.


  • Most prisoners in solitary confinement spend at least 23 hours per day restricted to cells of 80 square feet, not much larger than a king-size bed.

    Apparently, the definition of "not much larger" is flexible enough to accommodate "almost twice as large". A standard King bed is about 42 square feet.

  • Far superior to solitary confinement, particularly for white prisoners, is to put them in wings with active ethnic gangs to teach them tolerance.

    Here is [hrw.org] Human Rights Watch's discussion of how ethnic gangs teach white prisoners tolerance:

    Past studies have documented the prevalence of black on white sexual aggression in prison.(213) These findings are further confirmed by Human Rights Watch's own research. Overall, our correspondence and interviews with white, black, and Hispanic inmates convince us that white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse.(214) Although many whites reported being raped by white inmates, black on white abuse appears to be more common. To a much lesser extent, non-Hispanic whites also reported being victimized by Hispanic inmates.

    Other than sexual abuse of white inmates by African Americans, and, less frequently, Hispanics, interracial and interethnic sexual abuse appears to be much less common than sexual abuse committed by persons of one race or ethnicity against members of that same group. In other words, African Americans typically face sexual abuse at the hands of other African Americans, and Hispanics at the hands of other Hispanics. Some inmates told Human Rights Watch that this pattern reflected an inmate rule, one that was strictly enforced: "only a black can turn out [rape] a black, and only a chicano can turn out a chicano."(215)

    The benefits of this therapy have been documented by the government's study of the phenomenon [usatoday.com]:

    Prison rape worldview doesn't interpret sexual pressure as coercion," he wrote. "Rather, sexual pressure ushers, guides or shepherds the process of sexual awakening.

    Imagine the homophobia to which the world would be subjected if it weren't for the sexual awakening offered by the government's integration of angry white males with the rest of society.

  • by Livius ( 318358 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @06:47PM (#46363261)

    The idea of prison was originally that a criminal forfeited their right to live.

    In the case of capital punishment, the person's life was ended outright, but the idea of imprisonment was that the lesser punishments were achieved by depriving a person of part of the rest of their life. If you spent X number of years in prison, then X fewer years of your life were available to you. In principle, a prisoner should have no opportunity of spending any of their time in prison constructively, and all confinement should be solitary.

    That is why there is a certain intuitive appeal to solitary confinement as a punishment.

    Unfortunately, it turns out that solitary confinement is actual torture, is counter-productive, and diminishes those implementing the prison system.

    No-one has found a perfect way to punish and rehabilitate (both legitimate goals).

  • by ILongForDarkness ( 1134931 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @10:51PM (#46364905)

    King sized is 60"X78" = 32.5sqft. So actually it is more like 2.5 king sized beds. It is also a heck of a lot larger than the cubicle I spend half my waking hours in.

  • by manu0601 ( 2221348 ) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @10:55PM (#46364917)
    Human beings are social animals. Depriving someone from social interaction is therefore inhumane.
  • ... issues like "dizziness, heart palpitations, chronic depression". The US RDA for vitamin D for adults is several times too low, and people in solitary confinement indoors are unlikely to be getting enough sunlight to make up the difference. The isolation itself is no doubt harmful to many people too, but the vitamin D aspect could at least be addressed easily even within the current system. The nutrition issue is even larger; see for example:
    http://www.psychologytoday.com... [psychologytoday.com]
    http://www.theguardian.com/pol... [theguardian.com]
    http://www.naturalnews.com/039... [naturalnews.com]

    And environmental toxins contribute too:
    http://www.motherjones.com/env... [motherjones.com]

    Ironically, corporations get to repent by "restorative justice" (paying reparations or fixing what was broken) while real people are hit with "punitive justice".
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R... [wikipedia.org]

    US prison population stats:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I... [wikipedia.org]
    "In 2008 approximately one in every 31 adults (7.3 million) in the United States was behind bars, or being monitored (probation and parole). In 2008 the breakdown for adults under correctional control was as follows: one out of 18 men, one in 89 women, one in 11 African-Americans (9.2 percent), one in 27 Latinos (3.7 percent), and one in 45 Caucasians (2.2 percent). Crime rates have increased by about 25 percent from 1988 to 2008.[18] In recent decades the U.S. has experienced a surge in its prison population, quadrupling since 1980, partially as a result of mandatory sentencing that came about during the "war on drugs." Violent crime and property crime have declined since the early 1990s.[19]"

    Recent incarcerations for drone protesters, but presumably not in solitary:
    http://www.syracuse.com/news/i... [syracuse.com]
    http://www.syracuse.com/news/i... [syracuse.com]
    http://www.syracuse.com/news/i... [syracuse.com]
    http://www.veteransforpeace.or... [veteransforpeace.org]

    What a difference a nun can make even in prison:
    "84-year-old nun sentenced for her anti-nuclear activism"
    http://www.catholic.org/nation... [catholic.org]
    "Rice said she learned in prison to see her fellow inmates, not as perpetrators but as "victims" of a system that gave them few options. Walli says that like Rice, he spends long hours talking to inmates to "instill the idea that human life is sacred. "They know that they are the human fallout and the victims of the profiteering by the elite and top leaders of the corporations that are contracted to make the nuclear weapons. It's (the money) denied to human services that should be the priority of any government," Rice said. "

MESSAGE ACKNOWLEDGED -- The Pershing II missiles have been launched.