Human beings are social creatures.  We are hardwired to seek and engage in contact with others of our species.  In our hectic lives though it might be easy to dismiss the idea of being alone as punishment.  Solitary confinement is a very harsh punishment, and as most punitive measures, tends to provide less than desirable outcomes for people exposed to it.  It is ineffective, yet endemic in the the United States (one can extrapolate to Canada as well).

“The spectre of Bradley Manning lying naked and alone in a tiny cell at the Quantico Marine Base, less than 50 miles from Washington, DC, conjures up images of an American Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, where isolation and deprivation have been raised to the level of torture.

In fact, the accused Wikileaker, now in his tenth month of solitary confinement, is far from alone in his plight. Every day in the US, tens of thousands of prisoners languish in “the hole”.”

Ten months alone?  Of course it is “for his own protection”.  More on Mr.Manning tomorrow.

“A few of them [held in solitary] are prison murderers or rapists who present a threat to others. Far more have committed minor disciplinary infractions within prison or otherwise run afoul of corrections staff. Many of them suffer from mental illness, and are isolated for want of needed treatment; others are children, segregated for their own “protection”; a growing number are elderly and have spent half their lives or more in utter solitude.

No one knows for sure what their true numbers are. Many states, as well as the federal government, flatly declare that solitary confinement does not exist in their prison systems. As for their euphemistically named “Secure Housing Units” or “Special Management Units”, most states do not report occupancy data, nor do wardens report on the inmates sent to “administrative segregation”.

People do not get “fixed” or better when isolated.  The trajectory is almost always downward.

“By common estimate, more than 20,000 inmates are held in supermax prisons, which by definition isolate their prisoners. Perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 more are in solitary confinement on any given day in other prisons and local jails, many of them within sight of communities where Americans go about their everyday lives.

Over the past 30 years, their numbers have increased even faster than the US’ explosive incarceration rate; between 1995 and 2000, the growth rate for prisoners housed in isolation was 40 per cent, as compared to 28 per cent for the prison population in general, according to Human Rights Watch.

Likewise, no one can state with any consistency what these prisoners have done to warrant being placed in solitary confinement or what their isolation is supposed to accomplish.”

Pernicious and arbitrary.  The correctional system seems to be doing a very bad job of managing the people it is responsible for.  Extra bad for you if you happen to have a mental illness while incarcerated:

“At the all-solitary Colorado State Penitentiary, Troy Anderson has spent the last 10 years in isolation, never seeing the sun or the surrounding mountains, due to acting out on the symptoms of untreated mental illness.

Anderson has been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, anti-social personality disorder, cognitive disorders, a seizure disorder and polysubstance dependence, and he has attempted suicide many times, starting at the age of 10.

His mental health treatment in prison has consisted largely of intermittent and inappropriate medications and scant therapy, most of it conducted through a slot in his solid steel cell door. By Colorado’s own estimate, 37 per cent of the prisoners in its isolation units are mentally ill.”

Just one case, but how many more people are in similar positions?  There must be many a dark day when the only treatment available is more isolation.   It gets better if you are deemed a suicide risk.

“What conditions await these prisoners consigned to solitary for months, years or decades? A typical supermax cell runs about 2 x 3 metres and contains a toilet and sink, a slab of poured concrete for a bed and another slab for a desk.

Occupants may get a brief shower a couple of times a week and a chance to exercise in what looks like the run of a dog kennel three days a week. Food is shoved through a slot in the door. They get perhaps one phone call a month and an occasional visit, through a barrier, with an approved list of family and friends. They can select a book every so often from an approved list. On occasion, a TV inside or outside the cell blares programming at them, often of a religious nature.

If they are deemed to have misbehaved in some way they may be deprived of exercise, books or visits; if deemed a suicide risk, they can have their blankets and even their clothing removed. In one Louisiana parish prison last year, suicidal inmates were found being locked, alone and often naked, in so-called “squirrel cages” measuring 1 x 1 metre; one-fourth of the locally mandated size for caged dogs.

Wilbert Rideau, a renowned prison journalist (and now a free man), describes in his recent memoir In the Place of Justice the “bone-cold loneliness” of life in solitary confinement on Angola’s death row.

He describes solidarity as being: “Removed from family or anything resembling a friend, and just being there, with no purpose or meaning to my life, cramped in a cage smaller than an American bathroom. The lonesomeness was only increased by the constant cacophony of men in adjacent cells hurling shouted insults, curses, and arguments – not to mention the occasional urine or faeces concoction. Deprivation of both physical exercise and meaningful social interaction were so severe … that some men went mad while others feigned lunacy in order to get transferred to the hospital for the criminally insane.”

Europe as usual is ahead of the curve as they see solitary confinement as inhumane.

“In Europe, solitary confinement has largely been abandoned, and it is widely viewed as a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of international human rights conventions.

Recently, four British nationals who face terrorism charges successfully delayed their extradition to the US by arguing in the European Court of Human Rights that they would face life in a federal supermax prison.”

The news is not all so bad, there are few progressive currents in the US.

“In Colorado, which holds more than 1,500 prisoners in long-term isolation, a bill was recently introduced in the state legislature to curb the use of solitary.

The legislation would significantly limit the isolation of prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities, and would demand that prisoners be reintegrated into the general prison population before their release. In addition, it emphasises what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – which is strongly supporting the bill – called “the staggering cost of using solitary confinement, rather than mental or behavioural health alternatives, as the default placement without regard to medical needs, institutional security or prisoner and public safety”.

Wow, using what we know about psychology and people to make prison life more humane.  Quite a concept indeed.