Solitary Confinement Is Horrible and Inhumane. Why Is It Still Legal?

In this file photo, an inmate holds onto a fence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Herman Wallace, who spent the majority of his adult life confined in a 6-foot-by-9-foot prison cell, died last Friday of liver cancer. Wallace and another inmate, Albert Woodfox, were charged with murdering a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972. (A third inmate, Robert Hillary King, was also linked to the crime.) The so-called Angola Three—“Angola” is another name for the prison—were sent to solitary confinement, where they remained for decades, and where Woodfox remains today. Even as their situation won national attention, Louisiana prison officials resisted calls to release the men into the general population. (In 2008 the warden justified their continued isolation on the grounds that Woodfox “is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates.”)

Wallace was released from prison last Tuesday, after a judge overturned his conviction. His death three days later—his cancer was very, very advanced—has prompted a re-examination of the efficacy and humanity of long-term solitary confinement. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States holds about 81,000 prisoners in solitary confinement at any given moment—slightly more than the population of Gary, Ind. Prison officials across the nation have long defended solitary confinement as a necessary corrective tool. But a growing number of critics have condemned the practice as cruel and unusual punishment—and, what’s more, as ineffective.

The United States invented systematic solitary confinement. In the 1820s the Pennsylvania-style prison system kept inmates separate and silent, confined to small cells where they were expected to spend their days contemplating their sins. At the time, the system was considered extraordinarily progressive, given that it did not involve mutilating or executing prisoners for their crimes. It was also quite ineffective, as isolated prisoners tended to go insane.

Over time, solitary confinement became a punitive measure, imposed as a response to transgressive behavior. Solitary confinement is now used as a way to separate dangerous or disruptive inmates from a prison’s general population, and occasionally to protect inmates whose lives might be in danger. Isolating troublemakers makes the rest of the facility safer and more manageable, the thinking goes. This mentality has led to the construction of dedicated “administrative segregation” wings and “supermax” prisons that exist to abet the long-term solitary confinement of prisoners.

While the conditions of modern solitary cells vary by facility, they are generally small, narrow spaces no bigger than a bathroom to which inmates are confined at least 22 hours per day. They generally feature overhead lights that never dim and minimal interaction with other humans. This might not sound all that bad to you, and, indeed, lots of prison movies feature characters who breezed through their stints in solitary because they were mentally tough, and occasionally because they had a baseball to keep them company. But a short stint in “the hole” can wreak long-term psychological havoc.

In a 2011 report, United Nations human rights official Juan E. Méndez noted that “even a few days of solitary confinement will shift an individual’s brain activity towards an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium,” and stated unequivocally that the punitive use of solitary confinement “cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution.” In 2012 a Nightline correspondent spent two days in solitary in the Denver County Jail, one of the “newest, cleanest facilities in America,” and called the experience “two of the worst days of my life.” (“The worst part is the screaming. The sounds of my fellow inmates losing their minds was incredibly unsettling,” he wrote.)

If a weekend is that harrowing, imagine the more than four decades that Herman Wallace spent in solitary in a Louisiana prison. While the extent of Wallace’s solitary confinement is extraordinary, indefinite long-term solitary confinement has been common since the 1980s, tied to the rise of prison gangs and the growth of the prison population in general. Long-term confinement can have long-term consequences. Evan Ebel, the man who allegedly shot and killed a Colorado Bureau of Prisons official earlier this year, had spent years in solitary confinement; one of Ebel’s friends is now saying that the isolation warped his mind and drove him to kill. Indeed, in a 2012 editorial, the New York Times noted that solitary confinement “often sparks violence instead of dampening it. It tends to increase the likelihood that a prisoner will commit another crime when he gets out. And it is enormously expensive to build super-maximum-security facilities and pay for extra prison guards.”

So why is solitary confinement still so popular? For one thing, legislators have had little incentive to reform it. The public doesn’t care about what happens to prisoners, and, thanks to various felony disenfranchisement laws, most legislators don’t really care, either. (This isn’t always true; some legislators have indeed called attention to the problem, but they’re in the minority.) For another thing, lots of prison officials defend the practice, saying that isolating truculent prisoners helps protect the safety of staffers and other inmates.

We should not discount prison officials’ opinions on how to effectively manage and maintain order in their facilities. But neither should we let their words be the final ones. In a statement issued today tied to Herman Wallace’s death, the United Nations’ Méndez said that “the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law.” Long-term solitary confinement is inhumane, and our continued reliance on it as a viable detention strategy is an international embarrassment.