We are not solitary creatures

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a four-part editorial series regarding prison reform and the issues surrounding it.

As the members of the Lariat editorial board, we have already expressed our stance on the state of the American prison system. As mentioned in our previous editorial, prisons should intend to rehabilitate their inmates, rather than simply serve justice.

Solitary confinement definitely lands in the realm of serving justice rather than rehabilitation. Long-term solitary confinement does more harm than good for the inmates, and because of the mental problems that are incurred or perpetuated during the inmates’ time in solitary, the duration of time spent there should be limited – certainly not years or decades.

According to Solitary Watch, an advocacy program for prisoners in solitary confinement, it is estimated that there are currently 80,000 to 100,000 individuals in solitary confinement within the United States. The American incarceration rate already outnumbers the next four nations combined, so it comes as no surprised that America also leads in the number of individuals in solitary.

Scientist Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments on rhesus monkeys in the 1950s at the University of Wisconsin – removing the infant monkeys from their mothers and placing them in different scenarios. It revealed that monkeys without any social interaction or connection to another monkey would be socially inept. When dealing with humans, how can we expect for people, many of whom are already mentally disturbed, to ever become contributing members of society if we lock them away in a small jail cell by themselves where they have no contact with anybody?

Solitary confinement also obliterates any interaction an inmate can have with their family, spouses and children. And once out of prison, if the effects of isolation take more of a toll, they will continue to cause the individual suffering and pain well beyond their stay in the dark and secluded cells.

But as with all matters, there are caveats. Sometimes inmates are placed into solitary confinement for their own safety, such as LGBTQ individuals or children who have been placed in adult prisons. However, these people are placed in solitary confinement despite the fact that they didn’t personally do anything wrong to get there.

Other times, they are placed into solitary confinement for the safety of others. Perhaps the individual lashed out at another inmate or guard. It makes sense, then, that if an inmate who is already incarcerated proceeds to cause a riot, injure another inmate or breaks any sort of rules set in place by the prison, there should be some form of punishment, as there are other people’s safety at risk. But the extended sentences that leave men and women sitting in solitary for years is not an adequate form of discipline.

In certain circumstances, there are prisons that offer mental health units for the particularly disturbed inmates. Members of these wards will meet with a psychiatrist frequently and be making steps in order to ensure they are better suited for life beyond the mental health unit, whether that be general population holding or going back to solitary confinement. This type of rehabilitation is used to prime inmates for more social circumstances. If this is this case, wouldn’t it suffice to give all inmates similar treatment while in solitary?

Some prisons recognize the detriments of solitary confinement. PBS’s “Frontline did a special feature on a maximum security prison in Maine, in which a new warden managed to cut down the number of inmates in solitary confinement by 50 percent.

There are plenty of interest groups arguing for the rights of incarcerated individuals, such as the change.org campaign for abolishing long term solitary confinement in Pennsylvania.

There are also inmates who have undergone solitary confinement who have since been released and are writing about their experiences. Jospeh Dole recounts his 10 years in the infamous Tamms supermax prison, which has since been shuttered.

Of the multiple issues permeating the U.S. prison system, solitary confinement is unfortunately widespread. Rather than continuing to lock away thousands of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, let’s focus on getting them healthy and preparing them for life after prison.