The Case Against Solitary Confinement

By Stephanie Wykstra, Vox

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old. In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

 
Brian Nelson, left, who spent 23 years in solitary confinement, speaks about his time there on June 24, 2015, during a press conference regarding the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners against the Illinois Department of Corrections for its overuse and misuse of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons in Chicago. Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Brian Nelson, left, who spent 23 years in solitary confinement, speaks about his time there on June 24, 2015, during a press conference regarding the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners against the Illinois Department of Corrections for its overuse and misuse of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons in Chicago. Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

 

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands morethan that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators. They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American. The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years. Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days. Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

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Olivia McDowellComment