Much of what the general public knows about solitary confinement comes from TV shows and movies. Historically, they are meant to house the most violent offenders, those who would otherwise have a violent and negative impact on the general prison population. They are portrayed as temporary measures; as a form of punishment lasting anywhere between days and a few months to ensure that the inmate learns their lesson. However, solitary confinement is often used as a form of long-term imprisonment, lasting decades or the entirety of an inmate’s sentence. The people who are placed into solitary confinement are not necessarily the most violent or dangerous offenders; rather, they’re people who do not fit into how the system is run. There is little to no protocol and insufficient resources for dealing with and handling them, so the people found in solitary are disproportionately pregnant or transgender or suffering from mental illness. There is also a definite racial bias into who gets placed into solitary. Even when taking into account the fact that the prison population is disproportionately Black and Latino, inmates placed into solitary confinement are much more likely to belong to these two groups. Beyond the immorality of punishing someone despite an absence of wrongdoing (beyond their original crime), what are the impacts of long-term solitary confinement on those who are subjected to it?
The image of a cell in solitary confinement is vastly different from the image of a regular prison cell. Architecturally speaking, cement is poured into a single block instead of on an individual cell-by-cell basis. The block is then divvied up into pods of 6 or 8 (for better supervision). The cell itself is approximately the size of a parking space and contains a poured concrete ledge with a thin mattress that acts as a bed, another concrete block acts as a desk, and there is a toilet and a sink. Prisoners are allowed to buy a TV or radio and are allowed some books (particularly to work on legal cases). Prisoners are allowed out of their cells for 1 hour a day, typically to another room containing exercise equipment. The lights are kept on at all times. There is nothing to distinguish one day from the next, so inmates are often confused as to how much time they’ve spent in solitary confinement. Most importantly, however, solitary confinement deprives you of human interaction and touch. There has been enough research conducted on primates and other social creatures that indicate that social isolation can have an extremely negative impact on an animal’s psyche (psychologist Harry Harlow conducted some insightful, if depraved experiments on rhesus monkeys exploring depression and isolation). When coupled with the fact that around 95-98% of all prisoners (including those in solitary confinement) get out of prison eventually, it necessarily begs the question: what possible social impacts could solitary confinement have on the non-prisoner population? Besides its potential future social ramifications, solitary confinement already presents very real and current financial ramifications.
In addition to ethical qualms about restricting mental and emotional stimulation, solitary confinement is extremely expensive, costing upwards of $90,000 per prisoner per year (as opposed to $45,000 per prisoner per year in the general prison population). Every meal, piece of mail, and other needs have to be serviced by extra staff. The cost per prisoner doesn’t even include the expense of keeping a technologically advanced facility active. Perhaps the costs wouldn’t be as heavy a burden if solitary truly was a temporary measure rather than a long-term one. In its current state, however, the use of solitary confinement as an appropriate, ethical, and fiscally responsible punishment is indefensible.