What does it mean to call solitary confinement in prison torture? Although a United Nations report has described it as such, it can be difficult to envision how something that involves no physical contact is really torture. After all, solitary confinement is just extreme seclusion, right?
In a new article for the Guardian, Chelsea Manning, who's currently in prison and spent months in solitary confinement after she leaked classified documents, gave a detailed explanation that demonstrates why it's so bad:
For 17 hours a day, I sat directly in front of at least two Marine Corps guards seated behind a one-way mirror. I was not allowed to lay down. I was not allowed to lean my back against the cell wall. I was not allowed to exercise. Sometimes, to keep from going crazy, I would stand up, walk around, or dance, as "dancing" was not considered exercise by the Marine Corps.
To pass the time, I counted the hundreds of holes between the steel bars in a grid pattern at the front of my empty cell. My eyes traced the gaps between the bricks on the wall. I looked at the rough patterns and stains on the concrete floor — including one that looked like a caricature grey alien, with large black eyes and no mouth, that was popular in the 1990s. I could hear the "drip drop drip" of a leaky pipe somewhere down the hall. I listened to the faint buzz of the fluorescent lights.
Just imagine these types of conditions for weeks, months, or even years. It's not hard to see how someone would begin to lose her mind in this setting as it drags on for such long periods of time. (Now imagine being forced in solitary confinement, as some California inmates were, for decades.)
Yet America continues to use this practice, which studies show has deleterious effects on the mind, in prisons: As many as 100,000 prisoners are placed in solitary across the US each year. But if this is truly torture, that's widespread use of an unconstitutional tactic — since the Eighth Amendment explicitly bans "cruel and unusual punishment."
Moreover, the mental anguish could make it more difficult for prisoners to reintegrate into society once they are freed, increasing the chances that society will just have to spend thousands locking them up again.
Why solitary confinement is so bad
Solitary confinement involves putting someone in a cell for days, weeks, months, or even years with little to no contact with others. It is often used to discipline wrongdoers in prisons, but it's also deployed to protect inmates from others and segregate groups of people who are causing trouble. Around the country, it's used even to contain juvenile inmates in both youth detention centers and adult prisons.
A large body of research shows that solitary confinement can worsen mental illness and cause it in some circumstances, particularly among younger people whose brains are still developing. Symptoms include hypersensitivity to stimuli, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, anxiety, revenge fantasies, rage, appetite and weight loss, heart palpitations, headaches, problems sleeping, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts, and, in rare situations, lower levels of brain activity.
A United Nations report concluded that anything above 15 days in solitary confinement is torture
Some of the research goes back to the 19th century. The early research about the health effects was so convincing that the US Supreme Court confidently stated in 1890 that solitary confinement is not "a mere unimportant regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner."
The Court concluded that solitary confinement caused prisoners to go "into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community."
These types of issues led a United Nations report to conclude that anything above 15 days in solitary confinement is torture.
These detrimental effects extend to people who are in solitary confinement at no fault of their own. In adult prisons, juveniles and transgender inmates are often put in isolation for their own protection against older or potentially harmful prisoners. Sometimes certain tattoos can get a person thrown in solitary confinement, because the body art is often associated with gang affiliation.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other reform advocates argue that it's time to acknowledge the research and stop the widespread use of solitary confinement. "We have to use data and science in our criminal justice system," Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project, told me in 2015, "in the same way that we do in many other aspects of public policy."