Over the last several decades, we’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in the use of solitary confinement in this country. At the same time, numerous groups and citizens have been working to outlaw it. Opponents argue that prolonged isolation is inhumane, costly and ultimately ineffective, while prison officials argue it is necessary to secure the prison and its general prison population from violent inmates.
I myself was a victim of prolonged solitary confinement while I was held hostage by the Iranian government from 2009 to 2010. Based on my own experience and my extensive research, I am certain that prolonged solitary confinement constitutes psychological (sometimes called “no touch”) torture. I believe we have a moral imperative to eliminate this cruel practice in our country.
In the last year and a half, there has been a remarkable rise in interest and outrage against this practice, as well as policy changes in various states. Still, with an estimated 80,000 people in our country held in isolation on any given day, a problem of this scope calls for a deep, sustained global response.
When the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, issued his report in October 2012 calling for a ban on any isolation exceeding 15 days, he understood that the problem had gotten out of hand worldwide. “When we weren’t looking, solitary confinement became a much more widespread practice,” Mendez told me in an interview, “with less and less procedural safeguards in place. We need to react now before it becomes such an established procedure that it’s too difficult to move the bureaucracy and stop it.
“There is interest in the U.N.,” Mendez continued, “but we need to generate momentum that extends beyond a discussion that begins and ends in a two-hour session.”
Following Mendez’s report last year, 12,000 California inmates spread among at least eight prisons protested cruel conditions by waging the biggest prisoner hunger strike in the state’s history. A core demand of the strikers was to end the practice of prolonged isolation. Later, in June of this year, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement.
At the hearing, Anthony Graves, an innocent man exonerated after nearly two decades in prison, testified to the brutal nature of prolonged isolation. “People that have experienced solitary confinement need to speak out on this issue because only we can articulate what it’s like. This is the face of torture in our country,” Graves told me. “It has a negative impact on the people that go through it, on their families and on the communities that they are eventually going to live in.”
Slowly but surely, journalists, activists, lawyers and survivors such as Graves are raising awareness about the brutal practice of solitary confinement. As public opinion shifts, prison officials and legislators are being forced to rethink their policies. Mississippi shut down a 1,200-bed isolation unit. Colorado moved more than 400 prisoners out of solitary and back into the general prison population. Maine reduced its solitary population by 70 percent, according to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. And Illinois has announced it will soon close its only supermax prison. Supermax incarceration typically involves single-cell isolation for indefinite periods.
I asked Amy Fettig, director of the ACLU‘s campaign Stop Solitary what she thought prompted these changes. “The shift we’ve experienced has been partly informed by the recession,” she said. “We really can’t afford this system anymore. Also, for the first time since the ’70s, there’s been a widespread acknowledgement that our prison system is broken, and solitary confinement represents the deep end of that broken system.”
Fettig continued: “Part of the problem is that it’s very difficult for the public to know what is happening in prisons because states either don’t track the data or don’t report it. Every facility needs to allow for an audit. How many people do they have in solitary? How long? Why? Has violence in the prison decreased? The public can’t make informed decisions if we don’t have this data.”
Alongside the ACLU’s practical arguments against solitary confinement, faith-based organizations are weighing in on moral grounds. As the Rev. Richard Killmer, director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, explains: “Some things are just always wrong, and solitary confinement is one of them. It truly is an immoral practice. It causes harm and in many cases it rises to the level of torture and is an intentional infliction of pain and harm.
“Departments of corrections will develop good regulation if they think the people in their state are watching them,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the word is getting out. You don’t have to say a lot to any individual to convince them that this is a problem.”
Russian existentialist Fydor Dostoevsky famously warned that, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I hope that people will join this burgeoning campaign to restore some civility to America’s prisons.