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The Case of Solitary Confinement

Introduction to Solitary Confinement

In the late 18th Century, solitary confinement was a privilege.

It was deemed a method of sparing inmates from the humiliation of whippings amid the public eye. Nowadays, solitary confinement is a method of controversial incarceration utilized to segregate inmates from their external environments, 23 hours a day. Although time has allowed radical changes to occur, one factor has remained common, solitary confinement has always occurred in a single cell, without visible windows or entertainment, with a bed and a urinal.

( Image Credits: ICRC 2016)

Solitary confinement is generally used to isolate further inmates that have committed “wrong-doings” within the period of their prison sentence. However, the grounds of solitary confinement are not only reserved for prisoners that are deemed dangerous. Detainees may be placed into solitary confinement as part of an interrogation process, while prisoners with mental disorders or illnesses are likely to be confined for a longer period of time. The longest time an individual has spent in solitary confinement is 43 years, currently upheld by Albert Woodfox. Woodfox was sent to Angola Prison (Louisiana Penitentiary) in 1971 and was accused of killing a correctional officer during his time in the facility - despite his repeated pleas of innocence. He has now been released, having spent over half his life, and over four decades, in solitary confinement.

A. Background and History

In 1829, a correctional facility in Pennsylvania experimented with the lockdown of prisoners, which lead to extreme emotional effects being imposed on the inmates, with countless suicides and socially dysfunctional changes. This lead the penitentiary to halt the confinement operations. However, more than a century later, solitary confinement was widely used within Alcatraz and Illinois' Marion Federal Prison - America’s first control-unit prison, and various “supermax” correctional facilities around the US.

In 1967, Lieutenant Commander, Robert J. Flynn, was shot down over North Vietnam after being hit. It was reported that Flynn's A-6A Intruder crossed into the Chinese airspace. He was held captive by the Chinese, being the only U.S. Naval Flyer to undergo such measures, and spent 2,030 days in solitary confinement as a Prisoner Of War.

The exponential increase in the use of solitary confinement did not occur in a vacuum, the amalgamation of the post-WWII economic property declination and the slash in the budget of American educational systems called for a more considerable degree of law and order maintenance, thus, leading to more drastic measures taken against criminality.

B. Psychological and Social Impacts

A vast majority of inmates in solitary suffer from psychological trauma during their time in solitary and for years beyond - 91% underwent anxiety and nervousness, along with 80% suffering from headaches and lethargy. A study done by the Journal Nature Neuroscience had found that confinement and isolation could lead to a change in activity within the white matter of the brain. White matter within the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain is integral for decision making and impulse control, and the reduction of activity could hinder an individual's ability to carry out either of the tasks. Human beings are social animals; thus, our brains require large amounts of stimuli in order to prevent an individual from undergoing a constant state of sensory deprivation. Sensory deprivation accounts to the loss of one or more senses, making it difficult for one to perceive external environments and a sense of self-identity, increasing the rate of clinical depression and chronic anxiety. The lack of external stimuli to the brain could incentivize one to create self-imposed stimuli for the brain through self-inflicted pain. A prolonged state of sensory deprivation also leads to the psychological dismantling and an unawareness of time. In many super-max prison cells, the need for constant visual monitoring necessitates the cell always to be lit. Consequentially, the system may alter an individual’s circadian rhythm - their biological clock, leading to irregular rest hours, and an abundant increase in stress levels.

Image Credits: FreedomWorks

However, it is important to note that not all cases of solitary confinement result in such significant episodes of psychological and social effects. The degree to which inmates experience such effects differ with variable factors, such as time, age, previous mental state and the type of treatment received by correctional officers.

C. Solitary Confinement and Recidivism

As inmates’ ability to control impulses and decision-making abilities decrease, their recidivism rate increases. There is substantial evidence present suggesting that recidivism and solitary confinement are positively correlated. According to data gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, 49% of inmates were rearrested within three years; and the recidivism rate for inmates released the same year, but directly from solitary confinement, was at 61%. A study done by David Lovell, a former University of Washington professor, found that prisoners that underwent solitary confinement had "committed new felonies sooner and at higher rates," taking only 12 months for an inmate in a super-max prison to recidivate, opposed to the 27 months for standard inmates to do so. The depiction of such statistics calls into question of the viability of solitary confinement within international criminal justice systems, the core purpose being decreasing recidivism rates within society. But solitary confinement does the contrary.

(Image Credits: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

The primary aim of solitary confinement to impose a disciplinary measure to separate “bad” behavior from comparatively “good” behavior from certain inmates, in gracious attempts of making prisons and correctional facilities safer. On a theoretical basis, the idea of solitary confinement is ideal in maintaining order within prison wards, but in practice, enough evidence has illustrated the redundancy of releasing an inmate directly from solitary confinement to a conventional lifestyle. A study published in the Journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour exhibited that the removal of mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement, and the adequate treatment with care and rehabilitation methods allows prisons to become safer, initiating the very action solitary had sought out to do. Solitary confinement deviates from the very ideology of criminal justice systems, leading inmates to have less control over their impulses within society.

D. The Viability of Solitary Confinement

With previous evaluations, case studies and analysis, it is undoubtedly evident that the system of solitary confinement is far more flawed than its other correctional system counterparts. Now, with the solitary confinement rates and recidivism rates in significant correlation, it necessitates evaluation of whether solitary confinement should be continued, and whether it is truly moral to confine a human in a restrictive space for a prolonged period.

It is believed that the use of solitary confinement is truly necessitated if a prisoner is deemed dangerous whilst on a life sentence, or if high-risk offenders and criminal gang members are present. However, for the latter half of individuals that are incarcerated within solitary - individuals that fought, argued, used profanity, and that have mental illnesses - the use of solitary confinement is detrimental to the improvement of their well-being, and will likely lead to the worsening of their situations.

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as "an act through which severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for punishment, intimidation, information or other reasons, such as discrimination." Despite the case exceptions above, is it truly moral to confine a person, if it amounts up to torturing them psychologically, physically and emotionally? It is undoubtedly dangerous to make any conclusions if the circumstances and situations are not known. However, whether solitary confinement is morally justifiable or not, the substantial link between recidivism and solitary confinement call for more action to be taken. If solitary confinement is used in correctional facilities, adequate vocational training and sufficient mental health counselling should be ensured to each inmate once alleviated of their sentence - especially in the case of inmates with mental health disorders. This is by no means a way to bandage the underlying flaws of our criminal justice and incarceration systems, but this solution seeks to improve the general well-being of inmates in preparation for their re-entry into society; thereby, potentially reducing recidivism rates.

"Solitude, isolation, are painful things and beyond human endurance" - Jules Verne














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