Recent news reports suggest that Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of leaking government files to Wikileaks, is being held by our government — alone, often naked, in a small isolation cell for months at a time as he awaits legal proceedings to commence against him. Many Americans are appalled by the thought of this kind of treatment. While it appears these confinement conditions serve no purpose other than to degrade Pfc. Manning and break his spirit, they provide an important opportunity for the nation to reflect on the deeply damaging impact of solitary confinement.
Sen. John McCain, who was held in solitary confinement as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, once asserted: "it's an awful thing, solitary…it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." It's hard to believe that such things could happen in America.
But the truth is that such things happen in America every day. Tens of thousands of prisoners in the U.S. are treated similarly, and sometimes worse. For these individuals, solitary confinement means being locked alone in a solid-walled cell for 23-24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction, reduced or no natural light (or sometimes cells are illuminated for 24 hours a day), strict regulation of access to amenities (often meaning very little reading material, no TV, and no radio), greater constraints on visitation (no physical contact with friends or family, including sons and daughters), and the inability to participate in group activities, including eating with others. Often, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for months and even years, and sometimes decades. One Virginia man has been locked in solitary for 10 years for his religiously based refusal to cut his hair.
The devastating effects of solitary confinement have long been well known. Dr. Sandra Schank, California prison psychiatrist admitted: "It's a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane. Most people in isolation will fall apart." In a 2005 submission to the U.S. Supreme Court, a group of psychologists and psychiatrists concluded that "no study of the effects of solitary or Supermax-like confinement that lasted longer than 60 days failed to find evidence of negative psychological effects." Solitary confinement can also violate the international law the United States is so quick to cite in reference to other countries.
Prison officials claim this punishment of last resort is reserved for the "worst of the worst." However, more and more prisoners are put into "the hole" for minor infractions, often because of mental illness or cognitive disorders left untreated, resulting in prison rule violations.
And the boom in the building of prisons devoted to solitary confinement (also known as "Supermax" prisons) in the 1990s means more space despite limited need. As a result, the U.S. locks more than 20,000 people in solitary confinement each day in Supermax prisons in more than 30 states, and thousands more in other prisons and jails across the country.
Further, at least 10 to 20 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from mental illness — either pre-existing or induced through solitary confinement. Some states admit to many more. Even children housed in adult prisons — a terrifying proposition anyway — are often kept in maddening isolation "for their own safety."
The Colorado legislature is currently considering restricting the overuse of solitary confinement and, in particular, making sure the mentally ill are not further harmed by these conditions. Legislators got emotional at the horrors related during the hearing this month on the issue. Unfortunately the Colorado Department of Corrections has claimed making these changes is too expensive for the state and may succeed in killing the bill. To aid the ACLU of Colorado in this effort, click here. The ACLU affiliates in New Mexico and Texas are also engaged in legislative battles to reduce the use of solitary confinement in their states.
Critics have rightly pointed out that the our government should not violate the fundamental human rights of Pfc. Manning, regardless of any crimes he may have committed. The same is true for every other prisoner in solitary confinement in this great country.