About 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years.
Now, there is growing evidence that such isolation causes mental breakdown, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided for the first time to review its policies on solitary confinement.
A court has just awarded $15.5 million to a man left in solitary for two years.
The United Nations has labeled the practice as torture. Yet most Americans will not hear about it, or they will gloss over it without much thought and go back to their daily routines.
But the U.S. has a higher number of inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world. The 80,000 include men, women, and even children.
“Solitary confinement. When we use that term, what we’re talking about is placing the prisoner in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, who does virtually all the functions of life in that cell. [They are] only let out for a shower, maybe brief exercise, alone, and a visit if he or she ever has one, possibly for medical,” said Carol Strickman, staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco.
“In some prisons, particularly Pelican Bay, there is no window, people go often years without seeing a tree [or] the stars,” Strickman continued, “Imagine if you’re lost in your own bathroom for 10 years. Maybe you can shout to the person in the room next to you, [but] that’s about it for social contact.”
Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, talks about the SHU, Special Housing Unit, as solitary confinement is frequently called.
“I’m a mother of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner,” she said. “I knew about the SHU, but I didn’t really give it too much thought. [Now it’s] something that I can’t stop thinking about, to know that these individuals have been housed like this for decades at a time.”
The practice was first reserved for the most violent inmates, but now prisoners are being subject to solitary confinement based on factors like race, religion and sexual orientation, according to some observers.
“It’s difficult to imagine without ever having experienced it. It is a type of punishment and torture that is completely unnecessary. It’s in violation of the Eighth Amendment and in violation of international law,” said Carlos Villarreal, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, SF Bay Area Chapter.
An estimated one-fourth of those who are placed in solitary confinement are mentally ill. Some went in with previously existing mental disabilities, while others have had breakdowns because of the conditions.
“It’s not just mental torture, but physical as well. [It] affects your bone density, your eye sight, your hearing. They don’t even allow it for a lot of animals,” said Canales.
According to studies, at least half of all prison suicides take place in solitary confinement.
Aside from the mental health concerns, the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons concluded that the practice of solitary confinement is linked to increased acts of violence in prisons. Other research shows a link to habitual relapse into crime.
Furthermore, it has been found that keeping prisoners in solitary confinement costs two to three times more than keeping them in the general population.
“Our position is that there are far too many people in prison. [These] major problems [are] because of the epidemic of incarceration in the United States.” said Villarreal.
“They’ve always been able to brush it under the rug. For years, the (California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation] budget was never questioned. But now we’re in such a mass financial crisis.Look at the numbers of what’s being spent in our prison system, and the numbers are tripled because of solitary confinement,” said Canales.
In California, prisoners linked to gangs are held in solitary confinement with indefinite sentences. According to prisoner support groups, over 500 prisoners in California have spent over 10 years in solitary, and over 70 prisoners have spent over 20 years in the SHU.
“The criteria that are used to put someone in solitary confinement are very broad. People are not Hannibal Lector, that doesn’t exist in real life, but we treat a lot of people like that’s what were dealing with,” said Strickman.
While the media generally does not cover what happens in prisons, a recent series of hunger strikes in California organized by over 6,000 prisoners has captured media attention, said Strickman.
There are reports that prisoner hunger strikes may resume in July if demands regarding solitary confinement and other prisoner conditions are not met.