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How Did a Form of Torture Become Policy in America’s Prison System?

The cruel rise of solitary confinement in America.
 
 
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In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to observe first-hand the effects of a peculiar — and, at the time, entirely novel — form of incarceration. The Quakers, who had opened the prison two years earlier, believed that long-term solitary confinement was an ideal form of religious penitence (whence the termpenitentiary) and would hasten prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration into society. They saw it not as extreme punishment but as a progressive idea, far preferable to the giant holding pens typical of the age, where mutilations and violence among prisoners were common, and spiritual betterment all but unthinkable.

Tocqueville was favorably impressed. “Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation,” he wrote, “than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope, and makes him industrious by the burden of idleness?"

Ten years later, Dickens paid his own visit to Eastern State, and came away with a rather different opinion. Solitary confinement, he found, inflicted unimaginable torment on the minds of those subjected to it. Far from leading prisoners to enlightenment, it ruined their concentration and haunted them with hideous visions. They fell into deep despair, losing track of time and of themselves. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he wrote in his American Notes for General Circulation:

[B]ecause its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear [...] It wears the mind into a morbid state, which renders it unfit for the rough contact and busy action of the world.

Dickens was not alone. Harry Hawser, who wrote poems about his experience at Eastern State around the same time, hauntingly described the effects of being plunged into a “living tomb.” By the end of the 19th century, the Supreme Court noted that solitary confinement had caused many prisoners to fall “into a semi-fatuous condition,” and others still to kill themselves or to become violently insane. By World War I, the practice was largely abandoned.

Still, the idea never entirely went away, and in our bewildering world of chronically overcrowded, gang-infested prisons, it has returned with a vengeance. The new generation of high-security supermax prisons, whose spreading popularity over the past 40 years has coincided with an explosion in prisoner numbers, is premised on the notion that dangerous inmates — the “worst of the worst,” in official parlance — need to be kept separate from the general prison population, and from each other.

The term “solitary confinement” is scrupulously avoided in favor of other, more clinically bureaucratic terms like “security housing unit” (SHU) and “administrative segregation.” But the result is essentially the same as it was in 1840s Philadelphia. Prisoners are deprived of almost all human contact — not just for days or weeks but in many cases for years on end. They spend 22 or 23 hours a day in cramped cells without windows, with no work or other structured activity, and with limited access to books, television, and other outside stimulation. If they talk to their fellow prisoners at all, it is by shouting through the plumbing system. Visits are difficult or impossible to arrange, and contact with the outside world — even the opportunity to see or send photographs — is rare to nonexistent. Their only experience of touching another human is when they put their hands through a slot in their cell doors to be cuffed or chained en route to their hour-long daily exercise in an enclosed concrete pen.

 
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