Solitary Confinement – The Guantanamo Bay Hidden in Our Prisons

Solitary Confinement - The Guantanamo Bay Hidden in Our Prisons

Trigger Warning for Suicide and Self Harm  


    The human brain requires stimulation in order to function. All of us have experienced this to a small degree, whether it’s that time during a road trip when your phone has died and you forgot your charger, or when you’re taking a shower and your mind wanders to conversations and arguments you’ll never have. But what would happen if you were deprived of all stimuli for a month? Or six months? Or even years? 


    When a prisoner has been caught with contraband, attacked other prisoners, or showed otherwise that they are a threat to the safety of the people around them, a prison may decide to place them in solitary confinement. The way that a given prison handles the punishment varies wildly – some prisons offer reading materials, mental health treatment (though it is often highly inadequate), and restricted phone calls to their prisoners in solitary confinement. But some prisons handle things very differently.


Cells with nothing but a toilet, a thin mattress, a bright light that stays on day and night, and a steel door with a small food slot make up a large portion of solitary cells. Inmates in these rooms lose all sense of time within days, with their only stimulation being a tray of food wordlessly slid under the door every day.  


It is very difficult to put into perspective what this feels like. But studies have shown that being in a state like this of zero stimulation for more than three days can be capable of causing permanent brain damage. Prisoners who have mental illnesses have been shown to have their symptoms highly exacerbated by solitary, and prisoners are already a high-risk group for self-harm and suicide.


In the paper “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind,” Timothy D. Wilson states that in a test where subjects were given fifteen minutes of quiet time and access to a shocking device, nearly half voluntarily shocked themselves to escape boredom and that even those who didn’t shock themselves “all felt miserable.” This is only a very short period of time, and solitary confinement can vary from days to decades.


In Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates, Fatos Kaba shows that “inmates ever assigned to solitary confinement were 3.2 times as likely to commit an act of self-harm per 1,000 days,” and that imprisoned people would use self-harm as an escape from the rigors of solitary. In “Solitary Confinement Is Fueling New York’s Prison Suicide Crisis,” Joshua Manson states that “someone attempts suicide in one of New York State’s prisons every other day. And 43 percent of those suicide attempts occur in the state’s notorious solitary confinement units.” It appears that solitary confinement, in an exaggerated facsimile of Wilson’s shock test, again causes people to choose pain when no other stimulation is available. The United Nations even considers solitary confinement for more than 15 days a torture method.


So why do we use such an inhumane practice in our prisons? Well, many argue that it is a necessary deterrent to keep prisoners from harming staff or each other. With the threat of solitary hanging over their heads, they are much more likely not to misbehave. But this clearly does not work. Anthony Gay was sentenced to seven years in prison at age 19 for a nonviolent robbery of a hat and one dollar. His sentence while in prison increased from seven to ninety-seven years due to a cycle of punishment in which his mental health problems were exacerbated by the prison environment, he was placed in solitary, and the problems worsened. As a result of solitary confinement, Gay would have died in prison but was finally released at age 44 as prosecutors backed off. 


His story is indicative of the fact that solitary confinement is not “punishment” or a “deterrent.” It is torture. Whatever pressure guards can place on prisoners using threats of solitary is not close to worth it for the human suffering caused by the practice. The idea of solitary confinement stems originally from keeping prisoners safe from each other. So why are the lights always on? Why aren’t the prisoners allowed reading material? Why can’t they call their families more often? No one is made safer by any of these practices. It is disgusting that despite where our society is now, we still see it fit to use torture as punishment.


However, recently there has been some good news. The New York Senate has just passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) limiting solitary confinement to 15 days in accordance with the United Nations definition of longer sentences being torture. However, this is not enough. In nearly every other state in our country, there is no regulation on solitary confinement and the practice is continuing unchecked. Federal regulation must be passed to entirely ban the torturous practice before justice can prevail.