In the United States alone, there are an estimated 80,000 inmates held in solitary confinement. These people are kept alone in their cells for an average of 23 hours per day and have very little opportunity for human contact. The cells where inmates are isolated are small—on average 85 square feet—and contain a bed and desk, sometimes both made of concrete, as well as a metal toilet-sink combination. Most cells don’t separate the toilet from the rest of the cell, leaving inmates to eat within close proximity to it. Inmates generally spend the one hour outside their cell exercising alone in a small, sometimes caged-in area, that isn’t always outdoors. When these inmates are allowed visits, they are separated from their families by a partition, so they may go years without any meaningful human contact.
There isn’t a clear explanation for the starkness of conditions in American solitary confinement units. However, there is a higher public demand for punitive treatment of prisoners in the United States than in many other countries. This public sentiment is exacerbated by the proliferation of for-profit prisons that try to cut whichever services they can to reduce costs, and the predominant view in politics that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”
Two things, however, are clear: time spent in solitary confinement is deeply harmful to both the mental and physical health of inmates, and one struggles to identify a real benefit of the practice that could justify the cost. Many inmates experience panic, anxiety, rage, depression, and hallucinations in response to solitary confinement. Inmates in solitary confinement also engage in disproportionately high rates of self-harm and suicide compared to the general prison population. Common physical harms of prolonged solitary confinement include headaches, hypertension, heart palpitations, digestive problems, and weight loss. These harmful effects can become permanent within 15 days, making reintegration into the general prison population and release from prison difficult. Studies suggest that time spent in solitary confinement increases recidivism, especially when prisoners are released into the community directly from solitary confinement.
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