The practice has been deemed torture, cruel and inhumane, and worse than being held hostage in Iran. Yet in the United States, the country with far more prisoners than any other in the world, solitary confinement remains a common practice even for holding juveniles and the mentally ill. In the wake of a Senate hearing on the human rights, fiscal, and safety impacts of confining a prisoner in isolation for months or years at a time, the federal agency tasked with overseeing prisons has agreed for the first time to undertake a close examination of the practice.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons will hire an independent auditor to examine U.S. use of solitary confinement, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) announced this week after meeting with officials from the National Institute of Corrections, which will carry out the study. There are more than 80,000 people in some sort of isolated U.S. confinement at any given time, and in Durbin’s home state of Illinois, 56 percent of the population has spent time in isolation. Since the Senate hearing spearheaded by Durbin, the Bureau of Prisons says it has reduced the federal segregated population by 25 percent, and that the national agency that oversees state prisons has worked with Mississippi and Colorado to reduce their isolated populations.
Solitary confinement often involves holding prisoners in isolation for 23 hours a day in a small, often windowless cell with a steel door. When prisoners are let out of the cell for showers at least 3 times a week, they are taken to another small, isolated space where they are sometimes locked for extended periods of time.
This treatment is not reserved for the most dangerous offenders. Solitary confinement is applied to children as young as 13, some of whom are in prison for charges as minimal as nonviolent burglary or drug possession. Sometimes people are placed in isolation as punishment, but other times it is merely for their own protection from other prisoners or as a purported mental health treatment. While many prisoners are held for months or years at a time in solitary, studies show the treatment has detrimental long-term psychological impacts after just ten days. Shane Bauer, who was taken hostage while hiking in Iran, called his experience in isolation – whether in Iran or at the notorious California supermax facility Pelican Bay — a “a living death.” What’s more, a remarkable piece of reporting by Bauer for Mother Jones reveals the process by which inmates are placed in isolation to be arbitrary, secret and virtually irreversible.