Like many others during this seemingly never-ending quarantine, I have spent quite a lot of time watching Netflix shows. Most recently, I finished the 6 part “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” series. Kalief Browder’s story is beyond tragic. Kalief, an African American teenager from the Bronx, was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was imprisoned at Rikers Island, without trial, for three years. He was eventually found innocent, released, and all charges were dropped. During his time in jail, he spent two years in solitary confinement due to fights with other inmates. While there, Kalief expressed need for help with his mental health multiple times. After his release, Kalief struggled with mental health issues and committed suicide at age 22.
It is difficult to understand the concept or experience of solitary confinement. The only somewhat relevant experience for most of us, is quarantine/ isolation due to COVID-19. However, this is immeasurably different. Kalief Browder is one of many to suffer under solitary confinement while in jail. Reports are now emerging that due to COVID-19, prisoners in Michigan were placed in solitary confinement for much longer than regulations allow. Individual stories like Kalief’s, as well as news reports of what is happening in Michigan, show that permitting solitary confinement is a grave miscarriage of justice. Although solitary confinement is intended to deter crime, it should be banned in the United States because it is ineffective and causes irreparable psychological damage.
Why Is There Solitary Confinement?
The first step to understanding the danger of solitary confinement is to know what it is. Solitary confinement is the “physical isolation of people confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.” Generally, these cells are 60 to 80 square feet and there is minimal contact with other humans. Often, there is little natural light and it is quite literally a concrete box with a bed and toilet. Prisoners in solitary confinement have nothing to do during this isolation and are deprived of any activities or contact with others. Stays in solitary can be a few hours or a few decades. For context, the United Nations states that solitary confinement exceeding 15 days is torture. And this affects no small number of prisoners: “There are more than 80,000 prisoners at any given time in isolated confinement, with around 25,000 permanently isolated in supermax prisons.” The primary purpose of solitary confinement is to punish prisoners who have disobeyed a prison rule. These rules can be as serious as hurting another inmate or as baseless as not complying with what was known on Rikers Island as “The Program.” “The Program” is a way of acting in accordance with the made-up rules of gangs and correctional officers. Inmates who do not comply with “The Program” are often targeted and sent to solitary confinement until they give in.
Solitary confinement is meant to physically distance and alienate an inmate from other inmates so that they can rethink their actions. The hope of solitary confinement is two-fold: that the threat of solitary confinement will prevent prisoners who haven’t experienced it from breaking the rules and will also dissuade others from reoffending. This theory of deterrence is aimed at keeping correctional officers and other prisoners safe.
It is Not Effective
Although the goal of safety is not flawed, the execution is. Solitary confinement does not actually make prisons safer or deter violations. Studies show that it does not reduce or control gangs in prisons. It also does not rehabilitate prisoners or deter them from reoffending once they are released from solitary. Some research even suggests that solitary confinement actually motivates people to commit more violations. During their time in solitary, they lose control and become motivated to retaliate on the people who put them in solitary in the first place. Furthermore, solitary confinement is known not only to cause, but to exacerbate problems like paranoia and depression, which often motivate more illegal behavior. Jails and prisons already alienate inmates from the outside world and strip them of many comforts. Further taking away their ability to interact with other inmates is cruel and unnecessary punishment. The mental tolls that solitary confinement takes on a person is a form of torture in itself. Additionally, it can be assigned on the whims of correctional officers. This means that its threat does little to deter prisoners because it can be assigned even for non-serious offenses.
Not only does solitary confinement not achieve its purpose of protecting prisoners and workers, it causes irreversible damage to those who experience it. The research on the short- and long-term psychological effects is endless and terrifying. Some of the more abundant effects are depression and hopelessness. This can often result in self-harm or suicide. In the case of Kalief Browder, not only did he attempt suicide in prison, but even after his release, the trauma of solitary confinement followed him, and he committed suicide. There are many stories like Kalief’s. Morgan Bluehorse was another inmate who spent time in solitary confinement and died from suicide in his cell. Prior to his death, Morgan reported hearing voices in his head and suicidal thoughts.
Anxiety attacks, hallucinations, and paranoia are also common. It also literally changes people’s brains. Research shows that the hippocampus decreases in size, leading to challenges with learning, memory, and spatial awareness. Conversely, the amygdala—responsible for fear and anxiety—increases in size. The psychological effects of solitary confinement are infinite and, in most serious cases, end in suicide. The lives of the other inmates and correctional officers are no more important than that of those who are placed in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is shown to cause serious damage and has no benefit of safety for anyone.
Role of Guards
Prisons and jails, though, depend upon guards and correctional officers having a position of power. The punishment that solitary confinement offers is a concrete way that these guards can try to control the negative behavior of inmates. Being that inmates already have almost every right and privilege stripped from them, few options remain as ways that they can be punished. Without the ability to punish, prisons and jails would be overrun by pandemonium and anarchy.
Luckily there are alternative safer ways to punish, that—although limited—are not solitary confinement. Some ways to punish bad behavior include a loss of privileges such as phone calls, requiring extra duty, delayed parole dates, and forfeit of “good time” which reduces the length of the sentence. All of these options avoid the psychological damage of solitary confinement and incentivize good behavior.
What Can Be Done?
Although there has been some progress made towards eliminating the use of solitary confinement, it is still a serious and rampant problem in the United States’ prison system. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a clear increase in solitary confinement. Jails and prisons are using the ruse of physical separation as justification for extended solitary confinement of inmates. There are many other ways to protect inmates’ physical health without compromising their mental health. The increased and prolonged use of solitary confinement due to COVID-19 is a great injustice and should motivate immediate action and change.
By vocally and monetarily supporting organizations and politicians who are committed to outlawing solitary confinement, there is hope for reform. Raising awareness of the dangerous effects of solitary confinement could further motivate this change. Other steps include visiting prisons, hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, and supporting reentry organizations. Kalief Browder’s tragic story is, unfortunately, one of many in which solitary confinement takes a life. The prison system has very far to go but eliminating this inhumane practice of psychological torture is an essential step.