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Evidence suggests isolating inmates inflicts permanent mental harm. So why does the U.S. have roughly 100,000 prisoners housed in solitary confinement, spending 23 to 24 hours per day alone in an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell?
- Dan Edge director, Last Days of Solitary
- Brian Nelson prisoners' rights coordinator, Uptown People's Law Center
- Andrew Cohen Senior Editor at the Marshall Project; fellow at the Brennan Center.
Watch A Scene From 'Last Days Of Solitary'
Solitary confinement wasn’t always meant as a punishment, as this clip from the Frontline documentary “Last Days Of Solitary” explains. The documentary premieres Tuesday, April 18th at 9 p.m. EST / 8 p.m. CST on PBS and online.
Highlights From The Conversation
What is the psychological impact of solitary confinement?
Brian Nelson, a former inmate who spent 23 years in solitary confinement says, “The first years I was in solitary I became angry, hostile, I was lashing out — I needed someone to talk to, I needed some human contact. I think it may have contributed. I received no mental health treatment while they held me in solitary as a juvenile nor when I was released. I was abandoned by the system after what they did to me. Most of the guys I know that have done long term in solitary, they’re out here on the streets now and they can not handle having a job. They’re on Social Security disability. I, at one time, was spending over six hours a week with a psychiatrist trying to figure out what happened to me because I’m terrified if there are more than ten people in a room. I can’t go to Christmas with my family because I become scared when more of my family members come…I’m in self-imposed solitary now because it’s what I know. Since 14-years-old until I was 46, that’s all I knew, was solitary and this gray box.”
Filmmaker Dan Edge got unprecedented access to the solitary confinement unit at a prison in Maine to make his documentary, “The Last Days Of Solitary.” What surprised him most about that experience?
Edge says, “It’s probably lazy thinking, but one imagines a solitary unit is populated by the very worst of the worst — very dangerous men who have killed people, who will kill again if they are let out of their cells. It wasn’t like that at all. Of a unit of about 45 to 50 men, three of them were in prison for murder. The rest of them were in there, obviously, for lower level infractions. And crucially, none of them were in solitary confinement because of their crime on the outside. They were all in solitary confinement because, for one reason or another, the prison found them difficult to manage. This is true of the entire use of solitary confinement over the last two or three decades in the U.S. prison system. It’s become a kind of casual tool for every problem a prison might face with inmates…The real thing that strikes you when you set foot into a solitary unit is, not as you’d expect, the silence — the sound of isolation is not actually silence, it is an extraordinary cacophony. That sound will stay with me forever, and it’s in the film. It’s the sound of sometimes 40 or 50 men howling, throwing themselves against their doors, banging, screaming, flooding their cells. It’s horrific.”
Who is being sent to solitary?
Andrew Cohen of The Marshall Project and The Brennan Institute says, “I think it’s more often people who have broken some rule. I think that prison officials will be the first to tell you, ‘Look, in some cases there are simply inmates who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others, who have a history of violent conduct towards staff, towards doctors—for example—towards other inmates, and they just have to be segregated. A prison can not run when violent inmates are loose among the general prison population.’ That’s essentially where their argument starts. But what happens in a lot of these cases, is that minor infractions occur and people are sent to solitary confinement for minor, relatively minor, infractions. Sometimes people are sent to solitary confinement for protection because they’ve run afoul of these sort of informal rules that run the inmates’ lives within a prison. Once you get to solitary confinement over and over again—whether it’s in the federal system or the state system, whether it’s in Maine or Florida or Oregon or California—the effect of the isolation on the brain, on the mind, is just devastating.”
On the importance of implementing mental health services to prisoners in solitary confinement:
Edge says, “Inmates would be put into solitary confinement, would harm themselves badly—to the point of suicide attempts, and they would be punished for harming themselves. The punishment for harming themselves, would be more time in solitary confinement. Now that quite clearly is a vicious cycle that will go out of control very quickly. This was happening while we were filming back in 2013, 2014. One of the key things the prison changed during the period of our filming was that Joseph Fitzpatrick, the new Commissioner of Corrections, decided they would no longer punish self-harm. That key decision cut self-harm almost down to zero, almost immediately. Another key decision that Maine made was to take inmates that were quite evidently mentally ill and open a special mental health unit for those inmates. It sounds obvious, but again, that has not only cut down on the use of solitary confinement, but made the prison a safer place.”
On the crimes committed and the punishment deserved:
Nelson adds, “I did a crime. I deserved to go to prison. I didn’t deserve to be tortured. I have been released seven years this June. I am worse now than when I got out [of] solitary. There’s been recent stories of two people, Kalief Browder and Tiffany Rusher, who both survived solitary and got out, and were in society and could not adjust. They both committed suicide. What happens to us in solitary, affects me everyday still. There are days when I am unable to function at all. There are times my family has found me balled up in a black closet, sitting there not blinking— just lost in a daze. When we commit a crime, I did something wrong, I was a part of something that deserved to be punished and I was supposed to do 13 years in prison. Something with their paperwork got miscued and I ended up doing 23 years in a torture program. There is no treatment for us once we are released. The experts all know how to treat guys that are in solitary, not those of us who are released into society.”
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