Andy Worthington writes an excellent piece covering the various costs (psychologically and morally) of prisoners in long-term isolation units.
EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. (…) Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.
(…) One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction.
Which makes clear sense. Neural pathways once used for social interaction, communication, bonding, higher cognitive functioning, atrophy. Neurons die. Aside from the various clinical psych sticker diagnosis, there is real neurological/physical damage to be shown. The cases Worthington covers shed light on the excessive cruelty and revolting treatment prisoners experience in extended solitary confinement in our infamous retributive punishment system. We find it preposterous that someone could become better after being whipped, dunked, stretched, bled, but we still are ok with throwing someone in a hole for months/years. When people say the US has the best justice system in the world, they clearly aren’t speaking about the punishment extension of that system. But it wasn’t always like this:
In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.
So, unless you have a better plan, this is it. Oh, wait, there IS a better plan:
Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, [the UK] gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.
So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. via
They have similar and successful endeavors in Norway, that I’ve mentioned before. In the US, I’m reminded of Bill Strickland, a Pittsburgh social entrepreneur who has a famous slide show about a lot of good things, but overall how to treat people …which we clearly can’t get right.
Image credit: Karen Franklin, PhD’s post about her time working in a segregated housing unit and a controversial study about super max prisons and psych effects.