Draconian longterm isolation is torture by any standard, a flagrant Eight Amendment violation, prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The UN Convention Against Torture defines the practice as any state action, “causing severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental…intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, intimidation, or intentional discrimination.
The Justice Department National Institute of Corrections defines solitary confinement as prison isolation in “special housing unit(s)…secured housing unit(s), intensive management unit(s), highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit(s)…isolat(ing) inmates from the general prison population and from each other due to…violent…behavior.”
Punishment substitutes for justice. Inmates are isolated up to 23 hours daily. At any time, tens of thousands of US inmates are repressively isolated, along with others in jails, juvenile and undocumented immigrant incarcerations, as well as military detentions.
They’re held in tiny cells, most often less than 7 x 7 square feet in size, countless numbers held longterm with minimal or no human contact, food delivered through cell door slots.
Many isolated prisoners experience hysteria, rage, total loss of control, emotional breakdown, regressive behavior, and self-mutilation.
They suffer panic attacks, lethargy, insomnia, nightmares, dizziness, social withdrawal, memory and appetite loss, delusions and hallucinations, profound despair and hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, and paranoia.
Longterm isolation is like being buried alive, for some causing irreversible trauma and sociopathic behavior. Overwhelmed by their surroundings, prisoners can become zombies.
According to a survey by Yale Law School researchers and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), prison isolation is especially harmful to mentally ill inmates.
Of the 33 states surveyed, only Texas said it had no dysfunctional inmates in solitary confinement, a dubious claim by a state notorious for prison harshness – especially for prisoners in solitary confinement and on death row.
In his book titled “Texas Tough,” Robert Perkinson called the state the “hardest to do time” in America.
An exonerated former prisoner on Texas death row called conditions he endured “emotional torture,” the same for others, saying:
“(G)uys come to prison totally sane, and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore.”
Thirteen surveyed states said at least 10% of their isolated male prisoners experienced symptoms of mental illness, a way understated figure.
An earlier study estimated around 15% of America’s 2.4 million prison population is mentally ill, the figure much higher for inmates experiencing longterm isolation.
Healthcare in prisons is notoriously deplorable, Even when seriously ill, inmates can wait days for woefully inadequate treatment.
Mentally ill prisoners exceed numbers in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold, according to one estimate, their numbers increasing, their condition worsening from lack of proper treatment.
Yale Law School Professor Judith Resnik explained what’s widely known, saying:
“Solitary confinement is a disabling setting that is harmful for human health and safety. It can do harm for people who are mentally OK and inflict terrible damage on people who are already mentally ill.”
Numerous studies confirm it. In 2017, Colorado became the first US state to prohibit solitary confinement for over 15 days.
In at least 11 other states, isolated prison populations increased. Louisiana holds nearly 20% of its prisoners in solitary confinement. New Mexico isolates about half of its mentally ill inmates.
The Yale/ASCA survey found almost 2,000 prisoners were held isolated for over six years, horrific torture by any standard.
In 1985, only a handful of prison control units existed. Today, more than 40 states have super-max facilities to hold inmates in longterm isolation – including women and children.
Virtually all states confine a portion of their prison populations to some form of solitary confinement. There’s no federal data on the precise number at any given time.
Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately punished this way.
In 2011, the UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez warned that solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment during pre-trial detention, indefinitely, or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities, or juveniles.”
Human rights workers, members of the clergy, and others call for banning the practice altogether in prisons.
No one should be locked in a cage with minimal or no human contact – other than for safety in emergency conditions, even then for the shortest possible time, never longterm.