Frontline recently spent four months filming the solitary confinement unit at the Maine State Prison. In short: It’s hell. Most striking is the incessant noise—inmates striking the doors of their cells, howling like wild dogs, screaming, shouting, and moaning. As opposed to the popular image of solitary confinement as isolated silence, the Frontline documentary shows that in fact it’s a never-ending cavalcade of torment and anguish in which neighboring inmates subject one another to their own misery without ever laying eyes on each other. The guards seem defeated and exhausted; the inmates seem inhuman.
The clip in the link above comes from a longer 2014 documentary by Frontline called Solitary Nation, which paints a vivid picture of life inside the four walls of a confinement cell. Statistics are hard to gather together on this topic because of the patch-work nature of the American prison system, but we can safely say that the use of “administrative segregation” or “restricted housing,” defined as being confined to individual cells and deprived of human contact for 22 to 24 hours per day, is widespread.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 20 percent of all federal and state prisoners have spent time in solitary confinement and the use of the practice has risen since the 1990s. Researchers at Yale estimate that about 100,000 individuals are currently being held in some form of isolation. The use of solitary confinement disproportionately affects certain prison populations, like younger inmates or gay and lesbian ones, who were more likely to have spent time in isolation than their older and heterosexual counterparts. And the effects of solitary confinement can be devastating, as both scholarly analysis and popular reporting have long shown: depression, suicidal and delusional thoughts, insomnia, malnutrition, nausea, hallucinations, diminished impulse control, an increase in violent behavior, and cognitive degeneration.
Attempts to reform this practice have been met with mixed success. Earlier this year, President Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for those prisoners under the age of 18, but that rule didn’t cover state prisons or local jails, where the vast majority of young prisoners are kept (in fact, there are currently only 20 juveniles in federal custody, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons). Obama’s reforms further limited the scope and use of solitary confinement on adult inmates, and encouraged wardens to work to prepare those in isolation for reentry into society. Certain nonprofits committed to penal reform—like Penal Reform International or the ACLU—spend some time talking about this, but the issue struggles to break out of the general category of “prison reform issues.”
So what is to be done? Nonprofits have the power to shape the conversation around solitary confinement through powerful video projects like Frontline’s documentary. In some ways, local organizations can pressure state prisons and municipal jails more easily than the federal government, by waging legal and public relations battles closer to home. And governors and state legislatures can make addressing the issue a priority. As penal reform continues to emerge as one issue capable of uniting conservatives and liberals, it seems low-hanging fruit politically.
When he first came to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville did so on the pretext of studying the prison system, which he concluded amounted to “the most complete despotism.” How shocked the Frenchman would be now if he saw the expansion and abuse of practices like solitary confinement. But Tocqueville might also have a word or two to say about how society’s intermediate institutions—charities, activist groups, and politically motivated citizens—could encourage meaningful reform on this issue. For the sake of the tens of thousands of inmates facing what amounts to state-funded torture, let’s hope nonprofits are up to the task.