Via L.A. Times:
For most of his 12 years on death row, Anthony Graves lived in what he called an 8-by-12 “cage.” To see outside he would stand on top of his rolled-up plastic mattress and look through a small window at the top of the concrete wall in the back of his cell. He spent 22, sometimes 24, hours a day in this room.
"Solitary confinement does one thing: It breaks a man’s will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He’s never the same person again," said Graves, who served over 18 years in a Texas prison before being exonerated of all crimes in 2010.
Speaking at what was described as the first congressional hearing about solitary confinement, Graves told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee that the practice was "inhumane and by its design is driving men insane."
When 18th century prison reformers first began experimenting with solitary confinement, they believed it was the most humane punishment that could be visited on a person short of death. But after seeing what it did to prisoners, not a few jurists had a change of heart, referring to solitary confinement a “greater evil than certain death.” (See Haney & Lynch, 1997). It was reported in late 18th century American newspapers that prisoners housed in solitary confinement “[begged], with the greatest of earnestness, that they be hanged out of their misery[.]” (see id.).
Solitary confinement was a universal failure everywhere it was tried in the late 17th and early 18th century. It singularly destroys prisoners from the inside out, making them more mentally unstable, and thus an even greater threat to themselves and others than when they were first placed in solitary confinement to begin with. Even the most optimistic prisoners often find that they cannot bear complete and enduring isolation. Consider the experience of Bobby Dellelo, an inmate who thought he could take it:
“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Dellelo recalls thinking when the door closed behind him. Whereas many American supermax prisoners—and most P.O.W.s and hostages—have no idea when they might get out, he knew exactly how long he was going to be there. He drew a calendar on his pad of paper to start counting down the days. He would get a radio and a TV. He could read. No one was going to bother him. And, as his elaborate escape plan showed, he could be patient. “This is their sophisticated security?” he said to himself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.
Atul Gawande’s article, linked above, notes the experience of several survivors of solitary confinement. He recalls the experience of journalist Terry Anderson, who was captured in Beirut in the 80’s:
In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.
“I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”
One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.
Here’s Senator John McCain’s experience:
“It’s an awful thing, solitary … It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Gawande also notes a study that took place in 1992, which looked at 57 prisoners of war who were released from prison camps in former Yugoslavia. Medical examinations of the prisoners revealed brain abnormalities, consistent with a person “who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious.” Which is to say that long-term solitary confinement inflicts brain damage on its victims equivalent to suffering a severe concussion.
Solitary confinement does more than drive you crazy. It literally does physical damage. It destroys your brain. There are few things more cruel or inhumane than placing a human being in a metal box for 23 hours a day, with no human contact and very little to keep themselves occupied. There are also few things more counterproductive from a standpoint of institutional security in corrections facilities.
It’s good to see that it’s finally getting some attention on Capital Hill. But given the bi-partisan consensus on being tough on crime, I don’t predict a graceful expulsion* anytime soon.
*with apologies to Cold Specks.
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