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Solitary Confinement Destroys All Kinds of People

Amy Fettig,
Deputy Director,
National Prison Project
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November 7, 2011

What happens to human beings when they are completely cut off from others and stripped of any rights or the ability to appeal their confinement? Sarah Shourd, a young American unjustly imprisoned by the Iranian government after she and two friends went hiking near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, knows first-hand. She spent 14 months in an Iranian prison; almost an entire year of that time was spent in solitary confinement. Ms. Shourd recently shared the horrors of that experience, describing how after just two months in solitary her “mind began to slip,” she experienced hallucinations, she frequently cried herself into exhaustion and found herself beating the walls of her cell until her knuckles bled. At one point she even heard screaming and didn’t know the terrible screams were her own until a guard tried to revive her.

Thankfully, Ms. Shourd is now safely home, but she still bears the psychological scars of her time in solitary confinement.

Tragically, the suffering Ms. Shourd experienced in solitary in Iran is not unique to foreign dictatorships but is a commonplace experience for tens of thousands of prisoners right here in the United States, where at least 25,000 people are held in solitary on any given day. Across the U.S., prisoners in solitary are locked alone in a cell for at least 23 hours a day, day in and day out, often with no natural light and with no meaningful human contact. Prisoners in solitary are often subjected to inhumane conditions — recently, hundreds of prisoners in California undertook a hunger strike to protest the awful conditions in solitary there. The Washington Post recently editorialized that solitary confinement should only be used as a last resort.

Solitary confinement causes severe psychological trauma — prolonged terms of years and even decades exacerbate the effects, in mentally ill prisoners as well as others. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, recently raised the alarm about solitary confinement as a form of torture and characterized the practice as “growing and diversifying in its use and severity.” Indeed, solitary confinement is well recognized as painful and difficult to endure. “It's an awful thing, solitary,” Sen. John McCain wrote of his time in isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Solitary confinement is inhumane, wasteful, and ineffective, and the ACLU is working to challenge its long-term use and overuse. If you or someone you know has experienced solitary, we invite you to share your story here.

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