Civil Rights

Solitary confinement saps our country’s collective conscience


Over 125 years ago, in a death penalty case called In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 170-71 (1890), the United States Supreme Court wrote that solitary confinement was a “further terror and peculiar mark of infamy.” The Court described it further as an “additional punishment of the most important and painful character.”

Alluding to this ancient recognition of solitary confinement’s mind-destroying, soul-sapping, and otherwise dehumanizing effects – a view shared today by every reputable mental health professional, scientist, and reasonable, justice-loving person – Justice Kennedy wrote (in his 2015 concurrence in Davis v. Ayala, 135 S. Ct. 2187, 2209-10): “The human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation long has been understood, and questioned, by writers and commentators.” Kennedy’s opinion highlights the unsurprising conclusion that, “research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price.”

Putting aside Justice Kennedy’s eloquent prose, perhaps National Public Radio’s Brian Mann best sums up this country’s odious use of solitary confinement. In his article, How Solitary Confinement Became Hardwired in U.S. Prisons, Mann writes, “one of the first things you learn when you study the history of solitary confinement: People have had deep doubts about isolating inmates for a really long time.” And yet, despite these doubts, as Mann details, the United States has nonetheless had a long, shameful, enduring history of savagely segregating our poorest, most vulnerable citizens, disproportionately people of color, in cells.

Proof of this phenomenon is found in “Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s new documentary “13th,” deftly linking the mass incarceration of minorities with the express language of the Constitution’s 13th Amendment eliminating slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” As Kenneth Turan recaps in his review of “13th” for The Los Angeles Times, President Obama’s voice can be heard at the film’s outset saying, “So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.” The film then “follows that statistic with another, equally unsettling one: African Americans make up 6.5 % of the American population but 40.2% of the prison populace. While a white male has a 1 in 17 chance of ending up behind bars, for black males it is 1 in 3.”

Though we bill ourselves as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the United States continues (as it has for over a century) to incarcerate, in solitary confinement, an astounding number of men, women, even children. Writing for The Smithsonian in February of 2014, Joseph Stromberg offered a terrifying visual of this. Stromberg wrote: “Picture Metlife Stadium, the New Jersey venue that hosted the Super Bowl. It seats 82,556 people in total, making it the largest stadium in the NFL. Imagine the crowd it takes to fill that enormous stadium. That, give or take a thousand, is the number of men and women held in solitary confinement in prisons across the U.S.”

The sad and undiscussed truth is that a great many of these citizens are afflicted with organic brain injury and/or mental illness that has long gone untreated. Their symptoms are greatly exacerbated (sometimes to the point of madness) by their forced nomadic, stimuli-deprived environments.

To properly gauge the level of their suffering, one need only contemplate the words of South Africa’s legendary anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela. Locked up for 27 years as a political prisoner, Mandela is quoted as saying about the time he spent in solitary confinement that “nothing was more dehumanizing than isolation from human companionship.”

Mandela is also known for saying that, “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” By this measure, until the abominable practice of solitary confinement is completely eradicated from our prisons, the United States’ justice system will always be a disappointment.    

Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.





Tags civil rights Crime Criminal justice reform Incarceration Jail Prison

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