The pain of extreme solitude

Solitary confinement is torture and the United States is its greatest practitioner

When we think of torture, we usually think of physical torture—needles under the fingernails, electricity to the genitals, water-boarding, that sort of thing. But there’s another form of torture that may be even more painful than physical torture: mental torture.

Imagine spending years, even decades, in a windowless cell so small you can extend your arms and touch both sides. Most days, your only contact with another human being is when a guard slips food through a slot in the door. Several times a week, you are allowed an hour of solitary exercise in a concrete-walled yard only slightly larger than your cell.

Today in the United States 25,000 people are kept in solitary confinement in federal and state supermax prisons in 44 states, according to the Washington Post, “and as many as 80,000 may be kept in some other sort of segregated facility.” They are held in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation. We call it solitary confinement, but that doesn’t do justice to its gruesomeness. These prisoners have been buried alive.

Many of them are mentally ill. Studies have shown that severe isolation can exacerbate mental illness and even cause it in previously stable prisoners. As the Post reports, “solitary confinement can impede brain function, cause psychosis and depression, and even lead to suicide. Approximately half of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.”

No other modern democracy subjects as many people to solitary confinement as the United States does. Because it occurs out of sight of the public and the press, no light has been shone on this horrific practice. So it was good to learn that a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin last month held hearings on solitary confinement to re-evaluate the practice. Durbin called solitary confinement “a human-rights issue we can’t ignore.” He is right, and we hope his hearing begins a process of reform.