Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and detention centers has broken the bounds of reason and decency. The federal government reported last month that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency routinely holds hundreds of immigrants in solitary confinement -- even though the inmates are detained on civil charges. The news underscored the continued outlier status of the U.S., which subjects tens of thousands of inmates, including the nonviolent, to a practice that much of the world regards as torture.

Solitary confinement, wrote Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Long-term isolation impairs the brain, which is why as far back as 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that it led to insanity and suicide in some inmates, “while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

Unfortunately, a century later that lesson was lost. The 1990s were a boom time not only for prison construction but also for the practice of solitary confinement. From 1995 to 2000, according to a Vera Institute of Justice study, the daily prison population in disciplinary segregation increased 68 percent -- more than double the growth rate of the general prison population.

The total number of prisoners held in solitary confinement in the U.S. is difficult to ascertain. According to the federal government, there were more than 81,000 prisoners in “restricted housing units” in state and federal institutions in 2005. That number doesn’t include prisoners held in local jails or immigration detention centers. (A more recent census isn’t available.)

Prisons have wide discretion in confining inmates, who can be relegated to solitary confinement for reasons ranging from violent behavior to verbal insolence. Some are segregated as a form of protective custody. Solitary inmates typically spend 23 hours a day in a cell, receiving meals through a slot in the door. Even their one hour of exercise takes place essentially alone -- often in a confined space not much larger than a cell.

The benefits to society aren’t readily apparent. In addition to placing enormous psychological stress on inmates, solitary confinement strains budgets, because segregated units are more costly to operate, and increases demands on prison staff. Mississippi reduced the number of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement from 1,300 in 2007 to just over 300 today, saving more than $5 million a year without an increase in prison violence.

“We’ve been conditioned that 23-hour lockdowns make it safer,” Mississippi Department of Corrections deputy commissioner of institutions, Emmitt Sparkman, wrote in 2011. “In Mississippi, we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.”

Other states, too, are growing skeptical of solitary confinement. The prison system in Washington state has been reducing strictures on inmates in solitary units, granting them more time outside the cell for personal development, including classes and exercise.

Most nations in Europe have all but ended the practice. By German statute, solitary confinement is permissible only if it is deemed “indispensable,” in which case it is restricted to a total of three months a year. Any greater duration requires the consent of higher authorities.

U.S. prisons should follow suit. First, mentally ill prisoners, who have the least capacity to survive solitary confinement, should never be subjected to it. In cases where the practice is absolutely necessary, to protect either the inmate or others, it should be used sparingly. Sentences should be short, and prisoners must be allowed enough social contact to sustain their humanity. No prisoners should be released directly from solitary confinement into the public, where even the most rudimentary demands of society can quickly overwhelm them.

Solitary confinement is, by its nature, dehumanizing. It should be a last resort for violent and dangerous criminals. It certainly should have no role in the detention of undocumented immigrants and thousands of other nonviolent prisoners.

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