The greatest fictional depiction of solitary confinement is by Anton Chekhov, in a story called “The Bet.” Its plot is simple: A wealthy banker bets a younger, poorer man that the young man cannot live 15 years alone in a small, sealed lodge in the banker’s garden. He will have food and books but no human contact: no conversation, no letters, no news of the outside world. If he lasts the whole 15 years without leaving the lodge, he will win a fortune from his captor. What happens to a human being so confined? The man’s spiral into insanity is described mostly through his enigmatic requests for reading material. It would be a crime against literature to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that 15 years of solitude is not healthy.
The captive reaches summits of madness that few have trod — until the past few decades, that is. For Chekhov, the effects of long-term solitary confinement were a matter of speculation. But in the modern American penal system, long-term solitary is an experiment that has been run tens of thousands of times.
Perhaps 70,000 people are currently held in near-total isolation in state and federal penitentiaries. Those held in municipal jails might push the total closer to 80,000. During the past two decades, the growth of these populations far outpaced the growth of the prison population overall. Between 1995 and 2000, the total prison population grew 28 percent, but the population in isolation grew 40 percent. (Exact and more recent numbers are hard to find. The 70,000 figure comes from the best data set available, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005 prison census.)
This form of imprisonment has serious consequences for prisoners and for society. In effect, it’s a vast social experiment that we’ve undertaken without public discussion of its morality or wisdom. The results are not as sublime as a Chekhov story, though in some ways they are just as tragic.
Long-term solitary confinement is understood, by convention, to be the condition of being without regular human contact for almost all of the day, for a period of 15 days or more. Some prison administrators bristle at the phrase “solitary confinement” because of the associations it conjures. “We make a mistake when we call it ‘solitary,’” says Martin Horn, the former head of the New York City jails. “‘Solitary’ is sensory deprivation, not knowing day from night — it’s Steve McQueen in a dark box. And there’s no place for that.” He says those conditions are unacceptable under any circumstances, and are not imposed in modern U.S. prisons. What we do have are varieties of prisoner “segregation,” either to punish rule violations in prison or to keep predatory prisoners from attacking others.
Semantics aside, in most implementations of solitary confinement in this country, the cells are tiny, six to eight feet wide and ten to twelve long. Instead of a bunk and a stool, as in the movies, there are immovable concrete slabs; instead of a lattice of bars, steel-plated doors. Windows, if they exist, are small and sealed. The lights are on 24 hours a day. Food, mail, and medicine are passed through a narrow aperture. Physical contact between staff and prisoners is minimized, and communication between prisoners often forbidden. Prisoners typically spend 23 hours per day in their cell, relieved by an hour of solitary exercise in a cage or courtyard.
In some ways the modern forms of solitary confinement are worse than the Shawshank-style black box. Among the most criticized implementations of solitary confinement are the Secure Housing Units in California, which state correction officials say are a key tool in the state’s efforts to manage its prison gangs. The SHU at Pelican Bay, on the border with Oregon, is the most notorious. Far from being dark and dungeon-like, it is well lit and unsettlingly clinical in its design and orderliness. It is a facility whose mentally ruinous effects are concealed behind a curtain of banality.
The SHU’s goal is to neutralize alleged gang leaders. Inmates are isolated, in some cases, for years at a time. They can look through the perforations in the metal doors of their cells, but they see only a blank wall. They get daily recreation — alone in a featureless concrete box — but are mostly condemned to a life without human interaction, in a small room without even a window. They turn, like Chekhov’s victim, to books — they are limited to ten at a time — and to that universal modern babysitter, the television set, which they may watch as much as they like, as long as they wear headphones. If you have ever felt sluggish or unhealthily inert after too many hours as a couch potato, imagine five or ten or even 20 years of little else. The SHU is a very modern method of draining life away.
In truth, modern solitary confinement drains more than life: It drains away the self. Johnny Perez, an advocate for recently released prisoners at the Urban Justice Center in New York, spent 14 years in jail and prison for weapons possession and robbery. He spent nearly four years in solitary. “I remember talking to myself a lot out loud, singing, just to hear another human voice,” he says. He says “unrealistic thoughts” invaded his mind: What if the correctional officers leave and never come back? He underwent “feelings of complete worthlessness” and profound depression.
This vertiginous cycle of thoughts is typical, says psychiatrist Terry Kupers, of California’s Wright Institute. “The studies that look at three months [of isolation] universally report a list of symptoms that include anxiety, paranoia, compulsive acts like cleaning and exercises, problems of concentration and memory.” These prisoners exhibit a “high suicide rate, sleep problems, headaches.” And “that’s in relatively healthy people. For people with innate tendencies toward mental illness, isolation makes it worse.”
Those who are isolated for years undergo deeper changes. “They just withdraw, even more than the isolated confinement requires. And they have mounting anger, along with fear — terror — that the anger will erupt and get them in further trouble.” As a result, “they work hard to suppress their anger,” and the suppression “makes them feel generally numb — a zombie stage, or walking dead.” The long-term isolated often simply disappear into their troubled internal lives: “When guys are new, they do talk to their neighbors. After a while, they stop.” Perez began to refuse visitors — friends, family — who had traveled upstate from the Bronx to comfort him. “That’s when I began to lose touch with reality,” he says. “It got to the point where I was more comfortable in than out.”
Stuart Grassian of Harvard and Craig Haney of the University of Southern California echo Kupers’s findings: The confined experience irrational anger, suicidal ideation, unaccountable quiescence, obsessive-compulsive behavior and imagined physical ailments (itches that can’t be scratched, growths that aren’t there), and, ultimately, a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which the cell itself is the welcomed oppressor. Many long-term-isolated prisoners, upon release or transfer into non-solitary confinement, refuse to leave their cells, the prospect of even limited freedom having become more terrible than the predictability of total confinement. Others engage in self-harm — cutting themselves, biting off their own fingers, mutilating their genitals — as both an extreme display of personal liberty and the only reliable way to feel the touch of other human beings: the doctors and nurses who treat their wounds.
How did we get here? In part, the problem of solitary confinement is just the problem of mass incarceration. For a number of reasons — mandatory minimum sentences, “tough on crime” legislation, the drug war — the prison population has expanded faster than it can be safely accommodated. As larger numbers of inmates came to live together in cramped quarters, solitary confinement became a common form of discipline and a way of maintaining order.
It is not coincidental that some of the most vigorous supporters of solitary confinement are the guards whose job — an incredibly dangerous one — is to keep prisons orderly. “Punitive segregation is a necessary tool, and it should be available around the country,” says Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City correctional officers’ union. It “saves lives at the end of the day.” Martin Horn is a bit more cynical: “If you’re a correctional officer, your ideal prison is one where every inmate is locked down 100 percent of the time.” But a handful of studies suggest that solitary confinement has little impact on prison violence, both against guards and between prisoners.
Solitary confinement used to mean a short stay to punish serious rule violations. But prisons and jails now lock away inmates for months, even years, for small infractions — and sometimes for no infraction at all. Disciplinary segregation, as the practice is called, is used to punish a wide range of violations of prison rules, and the sentences run consecutively rather than concurrently. A young prisoner caught with 17 packs of cigarettes, for example, might serve two weeks in solitary for each — a total of more than eight months. (This exact case is described in the Vera Institute of Justice’s landmark 2006 report “Confronting Confinement.”)
Or, if he’s young enough, he might go to solitary just because of his age and perceived weakness. Beginning in the 1990s, large numbers of inmates started getting put in solitary not for things they did but for things that others might do to them. Members of vulnerable groups — isolated gang members surrounded by members of rival gangs; gay or transgender prisoners; informants; juveniles held in adult facilities — may be locked up alone for their own protection. The mentally ill are kept alone almost as a rule, often to avoid the social friction associated with other prisoners’ intolerance of their eccentricities.
Last, the incorrigibly violent — serial rapists and their ilk — are held in solitary for the safety of other prisoners and the prison staff. These “worst of the worst” provide the popular imagination with its image of the sort of prisoner held in solitary confinement. In reality, they make up a tiny fraction of those so held, according to Horn.
This last group provides what is easily the favorite argument of tough-on-criminals constituencies and correctional officers who defend the status quo of solitary confinement. “When you have an inmate who’s violent, abusive, and a threat to [correctional officers] and the general population, he will assault, murder, and slash other human beings,” Seabrook says. He views proposed limits on the use of solitary confinement as attempts to bind the hands of his correctional officers: Prisoners “made adult decisions with a 9mm, and then come to jail and have to be treated like children.”
Seabrook is not exaggerating when he says correctional officers suffer frequent assault. One common act is a practice called “gassing,” which involves prisoners’ saving their excreta, then blowing them, raspberry-style, so that they aerosolize and spray the guard as he walks by. An incorrigible gasser needs to be punished and deterred — but if the use of solitary is highly restricted or taken off the menu, as numerous activist groups argue it should be, the remaining options are few. “If I can’t use punitive segregation for more than 60 days in a year, what can I do for the rest of the year?” Seabrook asks.
But the costs of locking people up alone are mounting, and they are not only monetary. On March 19, 2013, Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado prison system, was shot dead at his home by a man who had spent much of his eight years in prison in solitary confinement — only to be released into the free world with little to no psychiatric evaluation to see whether he was capable of living on the outside again.
Virtually every prisoner in isolation will one day be released. Not surprisingly, studies suggest that ex-felons who spent extended periods in solitary break parole and reoffend at higher rates. Many are taken directly from their cells, where they may have lived for years, to the bus depot. “Imagine taking someone in shackles from [solitary] and putting them onto public transportation,” says Rick Raemisch, Clements’s successor and an aggressive reformer of his state’s solitary-confinement system. “Why not just tattoo on their forehead, ‘I’m going to hurt someone’?” As of February 2015, Colorado was holding just 136 prisoners in solitary, down from 1,500 in 2011. “Running an efficient institution is a noble goal, but that’s not our mission,” Raemisch says. “It’s having a safer community.”
Martin Horn, who since leaving office has become a strong voice against solitary confinement, says New York State’s current number of prisoners in long-term isolation, 12,000, should be reduced to about 400 — only the truly incorrigibly violent. And, counterintuitively, he suggests that in solitary they should have more privileges (phone calls, books, recreation, visitation) than regular prisoners, not fewer, to maintain their sanity and encourage good behavior.
He distinguishes between segregation of inmates for punishment and segregation of inmates to deprive them of opportunities to be violent again. The latter is not a form of punishment. It is simply part of the prudent operation of a prison. Consider, Horn says, the incorrigibly violent prisoner who attacks a fellow prisoner. He should be punished. But the prison authorities should not mistake his solitary condition for a form of punishment — one that could last for years, as retribution for whatever crime he perpetrated against another inmate.
Instead, he says, solitary “should be a tool of last resort.” These inmates “have simply crossed a line of decency and demonstrated an inability to live with civilized people.” But to keep them sane, he says, we’ll need to pay for more chaplains and social workers — employees of the prison who will talk to the inmates, play pinochle with them, anything. The prisons chief, he says, is “still responsible for their welfare.”
As it happens, the United States experimented with mass solitary confinement once before, in the first half of the 19th century. In what was known as the Pennsylvania System of incarceration, prisoners were locked away alone and given only the Bible to read. The idea was to induce repentance. The system gave us the word “penitentiary.” It also drove prisoners insane. It was soon widely condemned and rarely replicated (though not entirely phased out until the early 1900s).
The current system of solitary confinement is a historic anomaly, and one we have embraced at considerable moral cost. It fails to make correctional officers, prisons, or society much safer. It costs too much — twice or thrice per capita what general-population incarceration does. It destroys minds, and it punishes many who deserve protection and medical care. And it releases broken souls into society, which suffers the predictable consequences.
– Mr. Heffernan is an independent journalist based in New York City. Mr. Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.