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The Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement

One of my favorite non-fiction authors, Atul Gawande (author of Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science and Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance), has written a typically excellent article for the The New Yorker, "Hellhole", on the effects of long-term solitary confinement:

Consider what we’ve learned from hostages who have been held in solitary confinement [such as journalist Terry Anderson]...

Most hostages survived their ordeal... although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is -- as research and experience have confirmed for decades -- so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

So hostages held in solitary confinement uniformly view it as a form of torture. What do courts say?

Our first supermax -- our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement -- was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions "hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience." But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison's supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose "a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness." In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn't make everyone crazy.
So that's the legal argument? If something doesn't make everyone crazy, then it's an allowable form of punishment?

What about other Western countries? Do they follow our practices? In a word, no. Gawande describes a British prison program begun in the 1980s that de-emphasized solitary confinement in favor of techniques designed to prevent prison violence, then writes:

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in "extreme custody" than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
So what about results? At least we can point to results from our efforts, right?
In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear -- not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions -- in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support -- make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course.

So let me see if I have this straight. According to Gawande, we have probably "the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement", at a cost of over $50,000 per inmate per year. Other Western nations have rejected our approach. Hostages held in solitary confinement come to view it as a form of torture. The legal argument in favor of it is that it doesn't make everyone crazy. And studies show that long-term solitary confinement increases the risk of recidivism among inmates eventually released.

Can someone explain to me why we're doing this?


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