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Solitary confinement: an American invention


Solitary confinement as a penal practice is an American invention, intended as a humane alternative to corporal punishment. As early as 1787, many of Philadelphia’s educated elite, including Benjamin Franklin, argued for solitary confinement in lieu of publicly degrading criminals with forced labor.

Believing that deviant behavior was caused by the stresses of modern society, social reformers -- many of them Quakers -- recommended removing criminals from all harmful associations. Solitude would facilitate the rehabilitation of the offender who was to live like a penitent monk in a cell, meditating on the “error of his ways.”

America’s first penitentiary, known as the Eastern Penitentiary or the Philadelphia Prison, was specifically designed to ensure the total isolation of its inmates. Completed in 1829, its regimen, writes David Rothman in his book, The Discovery of the Asylum, “guaranteed that convicts would avoid all contamination and follow a path to reform. ... No precaution against contamination was excessive. Officials placed a hood over the head of a new prisoner when marching him to his cell so he would not see or be seen by other inmates. ... Thrown upon his own innate sentiments with no evil example to lead him astray, the criminal would start his rehabilitation.”

The American penitentiary system became world-renowned, and many major European prisons emulated U.S. penal policies and prison design. It soon became apparent, however, that solitary confinement did not produce rehabilitation. The Philadelphia Prison reported high incidents of disease, mental illness and death. Charles Dickens, who visited the prison in 1842, wrote, “The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. … [The confined] is a man buried alive ... dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”

Dr. Stuart Grassien, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and leading expert on solitary confinement, said that public scrutiny of the prisons as well as German research, substantiating the disastrous consequences of prolonged isolation, eventually led to its reduced use. “Although the Americans had been the world leaders in instituting rigid solitary confinement in their penitentiary system,” said Grassien, “German clinicians eventually assumed the task of documenting its effects, ultimately leading to its demise.”

In 1968 the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, located in rural southern Illinois, implemented a behavior modification program called CARE (Control and Rehabilitation Effort). Prisoners in the program were put into solitary confinement. In the summer of 1972, Marion prisoners, protesting a guard’s beating of a Mexican inmate, instigated a work stoppage. The CARE program suddenly expanded. Sixty inmates were “enrolled” in its regimen of solitary confinement, and the first Control Unit was established.

Today, many U.S. prisons are emulating the Control Unit model, and solitary confinement as a standard penal practice is becoming much more prevalent.

Prolonged solitary confinement is considered a violation of international standards for the treatment of prisoners. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Unfortunately, democracies and dictatorships alike frequently ignore this prohibition, especially with regard to political prisoners and those deemed a threat to the security of the state. The practice defies global analysis because governments are not forthcoming about its use.

Addameer, a Palestinian human rights organization, reports that, in 1999, 60 Palestinian prisoners were kept in solitary confinement under Israeli authorities. Their length of isolation ranged from one month to five years. In June of this year, Amnesty International voiced its concern over the conditions of imprisonment for Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the armed opposition group Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Amnesty International reported that Ocalan, imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali, is “kept in a 13 square meter cell,” under constant video surveillance for 22 hours a day. American Lori Berenson, accused of terrorism by Peruvian authorities, recently described her prison conditions in an interview with The Washington Post.

Berenson, who is still incarcerated, said that for two years, “it was 23.5 hours a day in a very small cell, with and without company.”

Some inmates in the United States have remained in isolation for staggeringly long periods, even longer than Mordechai Vanunu in Israel. Robert King Wilkerson, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for 28 years. Known as the Angola Three, the African-American prisoners have been locked in small cells that are not air conditioned for 23 hours a day since 1972. In March of this year, the ACLU filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the three, alleging that their prolonged confinement was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000