Prison Reform: Congress Should Declare Solitary Confinement Unconstitutional

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing to investigate the constitutionality of the practice of solitary confinement–a common practice in American prisons. Advocates for the abolition of the practice claim that it is a violation of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights, which prohibits the use of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

While solitary confinement may not be what we traditionally associate with “cruel and unusual punishment,” it is certainly a form of psychological torture. Senator John McCain–a prisoner of war for five and a half years during the Vietnam War–wrote, “It’s an awful thing, solitary…it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Solitary confinement isolates prisoners for 23 hours per day in a tiny cell not much bigger than a king sized bed. To demonstrate the experience of solitary confinement, advocates had a replica of a cell built inside the hearing room on Tuesday. 

The psychological effects of solitary confinement are well documented and disturbing. Studies have shown that the EEG brainwave patterns of prisoners in prolonged isolation (prolonged isolation can be as short as a single week) are similar to that of persons who suffer from brain trauma. Without the social interaction humans crave, the brain reacts as if the prisoner has suffered from a blow to the head. Advocates have also documented symptoms of solitary confinement, which include, but are not limited to, visual and auditory hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, depression, distortion of time and perception, and increased risk of suicide. One study concluded that out of a sample of more than 200 prisoners held in solitary confinement, one third of prisoners in solitary confinement develop acute psychosis with hallucinations.

At any given time in the United States there are an estimated 15,000 people being held in prolonged isolation.Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) began Tuesday’s hearing by pointing out that the U.S. has the highest rate of solitary confinement of any democracy in the world. While some may argue that solitary confinement is a vital tool for separating the most violent and dangerous members of the prison population, this is in practice usually not the case. A 2003 study of supermax prisons in the United States found that isolation did little to decrease inmate-on-inmate violence or inmate-on-guard violence. Evidence instead suggests that prisoners held in prolonged isolation are usually identified as gang members, have tried to escape prisons, or are being punished for relatively minor nonviolent offenses. 

Whatever legislation is created as a result of these hearings, it should severely limit the use of long-term solitary confinement even for violent or dangerous offenders and eliminate the practice for those being punished for non-violent offenses. There is work being done locally, but the United States needs an articulated federal policy on solitary confinement. A single bill can easily prevent thousands from undergoing the psychological torture of prolonged isolation and restore eighth amendment rights to prisoners across the country.