Friday, April 17, 2009

Solitude vs. Solitary Confinement

Anyone who even slightly knows me is aware that I am a loner. I like being home. My space. That I become physically ill if I am around people too much. And yes, apparently that makes me abnormal. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been known to coo in delight at a commercial for a local rest home (the neat little twin bed, the nightstand, the requisite seascape on the wall, and they let you keep a cat!). Or when we see a prison scene on a television show or a movie, I usually gawk at the cell in jealousy, thinking it’s an unnecessary perk for a criminal.

See, the little cell, it’s so simple. The necessities. The relative order of such a small space. I crave that. I’m sure it’s just the novelty of it: the idea of that tiny quiet space appeals because my life is huge and noisy. I am never alone. I think that solitary confinement would be delightful! At least I did, until I read the article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande in the March 30, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. It starts out by questioning whether solitary confinement is considered torture. Of course not, said my immediate, jealous self.

Gawande explores the concept of social interaction as a necessary component to a person’s well being. He asserts that research shows that a person without social interaction can become brain damaged. Oh. Beyond that, he goes into medical studies that show that “without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.” Test results can actually show physical damage to the brain from sustained solitary confinement.

He also points out that a “normal” person may exist without damage for some time in solitary confinement, but a person with any sort of mental impairment (a history of ADHD, autism, etc) will without exception become psychotic if the isolation continues beyond a few days.

This disagreed with just about anything I’ve ever learned about prison life. With several family members who are corrections officers, I’d bought into the idea that the dangerous prisoner needs to be in solitary confinement as punishment and to prevent their hurting others. This isn’t backed up by studies. In fact, if anything, solitary confinement encourages antisocial behavior, and creates more problems for inmates in the general population as well as the isolated inmates. Again, it was attributed to the lack of interaction that rendered prisoners unable to be ‘corrected’ by the punishment, and actually more difficult to handle because of a lack of remorse, despair, general hostility, and erratic behavior.

I found it interesting to see that the US is the only Western country that uses solitary confinement as a normal course of punishment in its penal system, and its use has only become prevalent in the last 20 years. At one point, in 1890, the US Supreme Court nearly banned solitary confinement for being “unconstitutional”. It was rarely used, and then only for short periods. However, as the prison population has grown, this isolation appears to be needed to control the wildness found in many overcrowded prisons. The US houses 25% of the world’s prisoners, yet the facilities are not designed for such size. Violence has increased, not decreased, since the confinement has become standard.

Great Britain has made new strides in containing difficult prisoners. They don’t use solitary confinement regularly, it’s an extreme that is a last resort. For example, “in all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in [solitary confinement] than there are in the state of Maine.” In fact, Britain has instituted its own style of handling their most dangerous prisoners in a way that contains them in smaller units, with more exercise, more access to mental health care, and special programming to increase social skills. These small choices and opportunities allow them to enjoy documenAted success of very few incidents of violence.

The article is a great read, and it boils down to the assertion that if rehabilitation is what is desired, solitary confinement is absolutely the wrong way to go. Very few cases exist that show a long-time confined inmate becoming rehabilitated to the “real world”. It makes you wonder what problems are being perpetuated by this practice, especially to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, who deal with years-long solitary confinement. A short term practice that may become a long term nightmare.

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