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  • Ethan Wai Chi Leung

Solitary Confinement: A Soul-Sucking System

In the United States, 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are being held in solitary confinement for up to 22 to 24 hours a day. Around 22 percent of that population stays for more than a year. By trapping inmates inside a two by three meter cell, prisons are responsible for unethical punishment, as solitary confinement creates life-long physiological effects. The federal government needs to work towards minimizing the use of solitary confinement and eventually eradicating the system because not doing so will continue to negatively impact the lives of prisoners during and after they are confined.

Frank De Palma, one of the many inmates affected by solitary confinement, spent 22 years and 36 days in solitary. During his sentence, he developed an abhorrent condition called Agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder where one perceives one’s environment as unsafe). In an article he wrote for The Marshall Project, he stated “I had the opposite of claustrophobia,” and “if it wasn’t a small, small cell, it was too much for me.” His cell was eventually the only place where he felt comfortable. He said “just the thought of coming out of my cell for any reason would send me into a panic,” highlighting the horrific physiological effects and mental torture De Palma had to endure while staying in solitary.

Not only did De Palma deal with Agoraphobia, he also had to endure a toxic relationship with the prison guards. Guards would use De Palma’s fear to their advantage, often teasing him with phrases like “We’re gonna pull you out of your cell” just to toy with him. After a while, the prison guards decided to finally leave him alone; however, this conduct is still inexcusable. De Palma’s experience reflects the poor quality of management and staff in these correctional facilities.

Sadly, after years of being isolated in solitary, De Palma became disconnected from the people in his life before prison. He said “My memories of my real life started to fade,” making him feel like he lived his whole life in prison. De Plama constantly questioned whether he was “too damaged to ever belong,” or if he was “gonna make it out here.” As evidenced by how De Palama described his mental state, his experience was clearly torturous and inhumane.

People who experienced solitary confinement for long periods of time live through something unimaginable and petrifying when they are allowed to leave. When De Palma was released after four decades, the openness of the world overwhelmed him. Even at a Walmart, he was shocked to the point where he could not breathe. He had to go into the bathroom and turn off the lights in order to feel comfort because the small and quiet room reminded him of being in solitary confinement. De Palma’s experience was horrible and something no one should ever experience, but it did teach us one thing: solitary confinement sucks the soul out of inmates. The prisoners are no longer able to interact and function in society once they are released.

When discussing solitary confinement, many health experts and human rights activists argue that it causes a deleterious impact on mental health because solitary confinement deprives inmates of social activity. Joel Dvoskin, a clinical psychologist in Arizona says, "Some people have told me they've been locked down so long they're fearful of their own behavior if they're around human beings." Dvoskin believes this is “especially counterproductive,” as prisoners are often eventually being released back into society like De Palma.

Another psychologist Craig Haney, from UC Santa Cruz said, “I’ve had prisoners tell me they spend countless hours worried about whether they’re going to be able to come out of this with their sanity intact. Frankly, some of them are unable to.” Many individuals who go through solitary confinement suffer from either forms of depressions or hopelessness. At times, some even attempt suicide hoping it could end their misery. It is therefore not supring that according to Haney, the highest rates of suicide and self-harm in prisons occur in solitary confinement units.

Although solitary confinement has a negative impact on inmates, completely trying to remove solitary confinement from prisons today brings up a whole new avenue of challenges. Solitary confinement has often been claimed to be used as a means to mitigate violence in prisons, which implies that removing solitary confinement may result in a heavy increase in fights and riots as well as violence against LGBTQ inmates.

Instead of abolishing solitary confinement, prisons should try to reduce the length of solitary confinement to a maximum of 15 days in accordance with the United Nations. Reducing the time in solitary confinement would lessen the likelihood of prisoners developing mental illness. Currently, minimizing the sentence of prisoners is the best option for correctional facilities, but only functions as a bandaid over the wound. Solitary confinement, a system that has major consequences, needs to be eventually completely eradicated.

In order to fully transition away from solitary confinement, solving pre-existing issues like understaffing and overcrowding should be the primary focus of prisons. These pre-existing problems are often the reason for the need of solitary confinement in the first place and have had a considerable impact on the safety and quality of prisons. According to research by Shadowproof, all 50 states have reported prison shortage staffing since 2017. Not only that, according to Penal Reform International (PRI), in many countries, the occupancy rate of prisons ranges between 150 and 200 percent. These issues result in a hostile environment in prisons and are why correction facilities rely so heavily on solitary confinement for control. Eliminating the use of solitary confinement before addressing these issues could result in safety-related problems, and therefore solving issues like understaffing and overcrowding should be addressed first.

Another problem regarding solitary confinement is its lack of structure. There is no established set of rules and guidelines to dictate when one will be put into solitary confinement. In a Department of Justice report, two percent of inmates who were untidy and unsanitary were sent into solitary confinement. Although this is a small percentage, this is something that we can’t ignore. The fact that people are being sent to solitary confinement for having an untidy room is absurd. Further, 22 percent of inmates were sent to solitary for smoking in unauthorized areas. These examples again illustrate that prisoners are being sentenced arbitrarily. It is imperative for correction facilities to solidify and establish a set of offenses that could result in solitary as a punishment. These should include acts that endanger others such as killing, assaulting with serious injury, and possessing a dangerous weapon.

Solitary confinement’s devastating effects have changed the lives of over thousands of individuals in the U.S. Many people have been dehumanized by the system, yet, a large portion of prisoners still face the brutal conditions of solitary. While solitary confinement exists for reasons like controlling prisons and keeping inmates safe from one another, there are far better alternatives such as small fines, loss of privileges, or even counseling that would disincentivize inmates from creating chaos in prisons. The truth is, prisons do not have the capacity to handle the prison population and are therefore using solitary confinement as an excuse.

‘Solitary Confinement - Google Search’. Accessed 28 December 2020.

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