The ‘hole,’ ‘lockdown,’ ‘the pound,’ ‘the SHU,’ ‘admin seg,’ ‘ISO’–no matter the name, these words, in the prison context, represent modern-day torture. In prison, solitary confinement is one of the harshest punishments imposed on inmates. Usually, those in solitary spend 23 hours per day alone in their cell. Their opportunities for recreation are limited. Visitation from family and friends is not usually allowed. Many inmates in solitary confinement can’t make phone calls and aren’t allowed any reading materials. Essentially, modern solitary confinement means being trapped inside your own head, with no way to pass the time. For that reason, long periods spent in solitary confinement can cause mental health issues with long term effects. Based on those effects, the international community frowns upon the United States’ widespread use of solitary confinement as punishment in U.S. prisons. In fact, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has condemned the United States’ use of solitary confinement as a form of torture, and experts in the UN suggest that all countries should ban solitary confinement because the mental health effects are too severe to justify using isolation as a means of punishment.
“[T]he [UN] Committee [Against Torture] remains concerned about reports of extensive use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation in US prisons, jails and other detention centres for purposes of punishment, discipline and protection, as well as for health-related reasons. It also notes the lack of relevant statistical information available. Furthermore, it is concerned about the use of solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time, and its use against juveniles and individuals with mental disabilities. The full isolation for 22-23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable.”
Research has shown that long periods of isolation can affect mental health. A prominent expert in this area, Professor Stuart Grassain, explains that “incarceration in solitary caused either severe exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting illness, or the appearance of an acute mental illness in individuals who had previously been free of any such illness.” He continues, noting the long term effects of solitary confinement that last for years after the period of isolation; these symptoms can include “persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress (such as flashbacks, chronic hypervigilance, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness), but also lasting personality changes—especially including a continuing pattern of intolerance of social interaction, leaving the individual socially impoverished and withdrawn, subtly angry and fearful when forced into social interaction.” Thus, periods in solitary confinement can create new symptoms of mental illnesses, even if the prisoner has never had any mental health issues. If the prisoner has previously suffered from a mental illness, solitary confinement will only make that mental illness worse. That is especially dangerous because prisoners are meant to rehabilitate, given the fact that most incarcerated human beings return to society once their sentence is finished. If prison is creating new mental illnesses and making those that already exist worse, how are inmates supposed to–effectively–reintegrate into society? The problem in our country is that, even though long stints in solitary can cause these types of mental health symptoms in prisoners with lasting effects, solitary confinement is not considered as cruel and unusual punishment–so it is not outright prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.