Revolution #278, August 19, 2012

Solitary Confinement: An “Ecology of Cruelty”

For the first time, on June 19, 2012, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the use of solitary confinement in prisons and the question of human rights. A replica of a solitary cell—just 7 feet by 10 feet and bare except for a cot and a toilet—was placed at the front of the hearing room during the proceedings as a stark reminder of the prison conditions that face inmates in prolonged isolation. This is an issue of great concern for many people and 80 people were seated in the room and another 180 people filled an overflow room. Only three senators participated in the hearing. These hearings came shortly before the first year anniversary of the heroic hunger strike of the prisoners in California who put their lives on the line to tell the world about the inhumane torture of solitary confinement. And the horrific nature of solitary confinement—in which prisoners are being brutalized, deprived of human contact, and literally driven crazy—underscores how mass incarceration in this country has nothing to do with rehabilitation or justice, but is about locking up a whole section of society—especially poor Black and Latino men—to whom this system offers no future. Prisons in the U.S. are aimed at punishment: degrading, dehumanizing, and breaking people.

The following excerpts from one of the testimonies at the hearing were submitted by a volunteer in the mass incarceration project of Revolution newspaper.

Testimony of Professor Craig Haney

Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Hearing on Solitary Confinement,
June 19, 2012

Craig Haney has been studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement for well over 30 years. He was a researcher in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment where, as Haney explained, “My colleagues and I placed a carefully screened group of psychologically healthy college students in a prison-like environment, randomly assigning half to be guards, half prisoners. We observed with increasing concern and dismay as the behavior of the otherwise psychologically healthy volunteers in our simulated prison rapidly deteriorated into mistreatment and emotional breakdowns.”

Haney said, “I have conducted systematic psychological assessments of approximately 1,000 isolated prisoners, most of whom have been confined in solitary confinement units for periods of years, and even decades, during which time they have been kept separate from other prisoners, and denied the opportunity to have any normal human social contact or to engage in any meaningful social interaction.”

On what solitary confinement is, he said:

“The units all have in common the fact that the prisoners who are housed inside them are confined on average 23 hours a day in typically windowless or nearly windowless cells that commonly range in dimension from 60 to 80 square feet. The ones on the smaller side of this range are roughly the size of a king-sized bed, one that contains a bunk, a toilet and sink, and all of the prisoner’s worldly possessions. Thus, prisoners in solitary confinement sleep, eat, and defecate in their cells, in spaces that are no more than a few feet apart from one another.”

“Virtually all of the solitary confinement units with which I am familiar prohibit contact visits of any kind, even legal visits. This means that prisoners go for years—in some cases, for decades—never touching another human being with affection. Indeed, the only regular ‘interactions’ that prisoners housed in these units routinely have occur when correctional officers push food trays through the slots on their doors two or three times a day in order to feed them. The only form of actual physical ‘touching’ they experience takes place when they are being placed in mechanical restraints—leg irons, belly chains, and the like—in a procedure that begins even before their cell doors are opened, and which is done every time they are taken out of their cells by correctional staff, on the relatively infrequent occasions when this occurs.”

“...There are two very problematic but little publicized facts about the group of prisoners who are housed inside our nation’s solitary confinement units. The first is that a shockingly high percentage of them are mentally ill.... The other very troublesome but rarely acknowledged fact about solitary confinement is that in many jurisdictions it appears to be reserved disproportionately for prisoners of color.”

“...We know that prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from a number of psychological and psychiatric maladies, including: significantly increased negative attitudes and affect, irritability, anger, aggression and even rage; many experience chronic insomnia, free floating anxiety, fear of impending emotional breakdowns, a loss of control, and panic attacks...”

“...What might be termed an ‘ecology of cruelty’ is created in many such places where, at almost every turn, guards are implicitly encouraged to respond and react to prisoners in essentially negative ways—through punishment, opposition, force, and repression.”

“There is some recent, systematic evidence that time spent in solitary confinement contributes to elevated rates of recidivism.”

“Solitary confinement continues to be used on a widespread basis in the United States despite empirical evidence suggesting that its existence has done little or nothing to reduce system-wide prison disorder or disciplinary infractions.”


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