Imagine being so desperate for outside contact that you interpret a sound in the wind as a whisper or take to caring for a spider by feeding it other bugs.
In a short documentary by filmmaker Cali Bondad and reporter Gabrielle Canon, that’s how prison inmates described their experience in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California. While in solitary, these inmates were completely removed from outside contact — thrown in a tiny cell for 22.5 hours a day, with just one hour in a small concrete yard alone to change up the scenery. And some of these inmates faced these conditions for years or decades, sometimes for flimsy accusations like tattoos supposedly proving membership in a gang.
The inmates don’t all deny that they did bad things to get locked up in prison in the first place. But they argue that their treatment in solitary confinement is worse than anything anyone deserves — the kind of torture that the Eight Amendment’s ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" may have been written to prevent.
"It’s not to the point where you want to commit suicide," Paul Redd, one inmate, said. "But sometimes I’m at the point that I’d be wanting to write the judge and say, ‘Just give me the death penalty. Just give me the death penalty, man.’"
Others said their treatment made them feel less than human. "If you could put every emotion of the human spirit of hopelessness, pain, agony, hatred, frustration, a sense of continuous silently screaming — all these emotions while you’re locked in this cage treated like some animal," an unnamed inmate said. "Most people wouldn’t even treat an animal like that. An animal who was suffering pain, they would take him to the vet and do something for him."
But it’s not just these inmates’ experiences that show solitary confinement is horrific. A lot of research does, too.
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, previously told me, "in the same way that we do in many other aspects of public policy."