I remember the first time I drove past San Quentin State Prison. At seven years old, I observed the barred windows and the tall barbed wire fences with a sense of confusion. After asking my dad what that building was, he simply replied by saying, “That’s where all the bad guys go.” Over the years, I built my understanding of prisons through media and the talk around me. From my limited information, I assumed that all prisoners deserved their future.
Even after a brief period of research on the topic, I realized the depths of my own misconceptions regarding solitary confinement. For instance, according to NPR, solitary was introduced in the 1800s to see if it was a form of rehabilitation for inmates, but it was soon banished due to clear psychological distress among them. In the 1980s, prisons reestablished the misery in order to reduce violence in the general population. To this day, however, they continue to disregard the immorality of the concept and the results.
In fact, some would liken solitary confinement to torture. AFCS reports that when given this punishment, prisoners are snatched from the general population and shoved in a 5 by 7 foot room. Some get lucky and have a window smaller than the size of printer paper exposing the dank hallway. Others solely rely on a slim slot on the door used to deliver their mush of food. Prisoners look forward to their one hour of physical activity each day, which consists of them walking around a cage outdoors like animals. The rest of the day they are forced to sit on a thin bed; some become trapped in their thoughts. Anger, guilt, and loneliness can build up and lead to serious mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Moreover, severe hallucinations and panic attacks are not uncommon. According to Dan Nolan from Frontline, it is extremely unlikely that an inmate will spend less than fifteen days in solitary. Furthermore, studies show that signs of mental distress begin within ten days of confinement. With such extreme lack of human interaction, many prisoners go crazy.
Along with the toll on prisoner’s mental health, I see a conflict with basic decency and morality in treating fellow human beings in such barbaric ways. Thus, I wonder why we continue to segregate prisoners in such a tormenting fashion. Obviously, the prison system is complicated, but I do not believe that this form of solitary confinement is the most just or effective mode of rehabilitation. If the goal of solitary is to reduce prison violence, then separating the inmate from others for a brief amount of time seems reasonable. However, the conditions of their confinement must be altered.
In order to make the punishment more efficient without further damaging the prisoner’s mental state, confinement rooms should not be as closed off as they are currently. If they have larger windows that do not fully lock them away, the inmate will have more human interaction and comfort around other people. Furthermore, increasing their exercising time out of their cell will significantly improve their mental state. Exercise is known to improve mental health, since challenging your body releases endorphins, as told in Psychology Today. If inmates are locked in a cell all day, their mindset becomes stagnant and passive. We, as a society, need a shift in the judicial system to help people who are locked away for years on end. We cannot continue to allow institutions consistently result to this horrendous punishment rather than finding a more just solution.
Solitary confinement is a form of torture that has proven to be ineffective. Not only is it responsible for half of prison suicides, it also works against rehabilitating the inmate, thus leading to less possibility of returning to society (NCBI). Even from the term “prisoners,” we dehumanize them to the level of animals. Through media and education, the stigma around inmates must reduce enough for the public to see that this practice is inhumane and cruel. From there, why wouldn’t we act on our morals and take initiative to help this population serve their time in a less deranged manner?