LOUISIANA, United States - What comes to mind when people think about solitary confinement? Society depicts prisoners in locked cells with little or no contact with the outside world. This is the reality of thousands of prisoners throughout the penal system in America, but what makes this subject topical and visceral is the recent release of Albert Woodfox. He was charged along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, for allegedly killing a guard during the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana riots in 1972.
Much can be debated about the guilt of these three black men, especially about the cruel and unusual punishment of having to serve their entire sentences in solitary confinement. Thus, the "Angola Three," as they have come to be known, are a prime example of the abuse of the incarcerated in solitary confinement also known as administrative segregation which condemns prisoners to a veritable living death.
Until his release, Woodfox was the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the history of United States, having served 43 years in solitary confinement. The next most famous personage to survive a long prison sentence in solitary confinement was Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison. He had received a life sentence in 1964 for conspiring against the apartheid regime, and spent the first 18 of those years on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. (Source: Solitary Watch).
We, the public, can conceptualize solitary confinement, but everyone who has visited decommissioned cells in the administrative segregation section of prisons remarks on the fact that they couldn't imagine spending more than a few minutes in such an environment. Even this brief amount of time adversely impacted them, so one can extrapolate, though not really comprehend the magnitude of spending almost half-a-century in a small cell locked up for 23 hours a day.
The practice of administrative segregation needs to be reviewed much like the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) some states across the nation are choosing to legislate the discontinuation of capital punishment, and many states and even the federal government need to also reexamine the potential human rights abuses of prolonged isolation of prisoners.
Solitary confinement is often used to separate dangerous prisoners, protect inmates from other inmates, or put a stop to illegal activities outside of the prison, according to the National Institute of Corrections (NICIC). The problem with this method of punishment is that confined inmates are at risk for mental health problems. Inmates in solitary confinement are not engaged in stimulating activities such as work, friendship, volunteering, religious worship, and more. In fact they are isolated for 23 hours a day, which is proven to have a deleterious affect on mental health. Studies show that living alone is positively linked to mental health problems, and while this is not typical for everyone, isolation and seclusion can lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm, hatred or other psychological and physiological concerns.
These health effects are especially greater in solitary confinement because prisoners spend everything but 1 hour of each day locked up and alone.
“In 2014, 13 years after being set free, Robert King told CNN that he still suffers from confusion, saying that he often gets "confused as to where I am, where I should be." He also said he started experiencing problems with his vision soon after entering solitary confinement. In addition, King told CNN that depression was a constant (though expected) symptom.”
The effects of solitary confinement on a prisoner’s well-being have been debated since the first half of the 20th century, according to Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen. For reasons earlier noted, solitary confinement is a necessary component of the penal system, but its efficacy is in doubt outside of isolating violent inmates who pose an immediate danger to other incarcerates and even the guards. Prolonged and forced isolation of prisoners who have no recourse nor outside representation is one of theissues that needs to be debated as part the overall reformation of prison system.
To that end, small things can be changed to immediately improve the lives of those inmates who are locked up for long periods of time. This may include granting them the privilege of engaging in daily tasks as well as maintain meaningful social contacts that can be monitored and reviewed by the Prisoner Review Board. These contacts may involve writing letters and making phone calls to family members, friends, and mental health professionals, all of which are afforded to mainstreamed prisoners, but denied to those confined in solitary.
Additionally, attention to the mental health of prisoners being held in solitary confinement needs to be a top priority. They should have frequent access to social workers, clinical licensed psychologist, or even psychiatrist so that they can share their feelings, find an outlet for their depression through therapy, and if necessary receive proper medicine to manage any preexisting or confinement induced mental illnesses. No human being can exists successfully in isolation, as our ability to remain human and hold onto our humanity is through our relationships with other people and participation with the community, even if that community is an incarcerated population.
This does not negate the necessity of the penal system, nor the necessity of incarcerating violent felons such as murders, rapists, pedophiles, or robbers from time-to-time in solitary confinement; however, to keep inmates locked up continuously for decades at a time is a clear human rights violation. For the families of victims of violent crimes, no punishment could be too harsh and since we have not walked a 'mile' in their proverbial shoes we don't know exactly how we would react. But, the empirical evidence is clear that when and if solitary confined prisoners are released back into society without proper mental health treatment, they pose a greater danger than when they went into the system.
While incarceration is intended to strip inmates of certain rights, not addressing mental health problems which are the result of solitary confinement will ultimately result in extra costs and impose a greater burden upon a system that is currently stretched to its limits. But, these costs are minimal when compared to the expense of having to hire extra guards to manage volatile situations which may arise because of having mentally ill inmates in general population.
The case for or against solitary confinement is a complex one; however, it is clear that the system of isolation and administrative segregation poses a greater risk to society by creating a class of individuals who are mentally unstable, either because of genetic disposition or prolonged isolation, and therefore are incapable of successfully reintegrating into a society into which they are thrust without support, medication, or life and job skills upon completion of their sentences.
Contributing Journalist: @SophieSokolo