"It's an awful thing, solitary," Senator 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." McCain spent about two years in isolation; Herman Wallace is now in his 42nd year of solitary confinement.
The United States is an egregious global outlier in this area. No other democratic country has made solitary confinement such a routine and integral part of its prison system. On any given day, about 80,000 U.S. prisoners are in solitary confinement or some other form of highly restricted housing. And while Herman Wallace's case is extreme by any measure, long-term solitary confinement is alarmingly common. A 2009 study of a single Illinois prison revealed that more than 50 prisoners had been in continuous solitary confinement for more than 10 years.
The damaging effects of solitary confinement have long been well known. In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court described its effects in the early days of the republic:
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane, others still, committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.
Solitary confinement is especially devastating to those with pre-existing mental illness. Subjected to the extreme social isolation and environmental deprivation of solitary confinement, these prisoners often suffer catastrophic psychiatric breakdowns, sometimes including self-mutilation and suicide. At one solitary confinement unit in Indiana, a mentally ill prisoner burned himself alive; another choked himself to death with a washcloth. Not even children are exempt from this draconian practice. Last year a report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union found children as young as 13 held in solitary confinement in adult prisons and jails throughout the United States.
I once represented a 17-year-old boy who was in the most restrictive unit of Wisconsin's solitary confinement prison. He had a history of severe mental illness going back to the age of nine and had already tried to hang himself in prison. Since his transfer to solitary confinement, his mental health had deteriorated dramatically; a psychiatrist concluded that he exhibited severe depression and was at extremely high risk of suicide. Fortunately a federal judge ordered that he be removed from solitary immediately, but most others in his situation aren't so lucky.
In addition to raising grave human rights concerns, solitary confinement is expensive. Staffing costs are higher, because prisoners in solitary don't work and must have food, medication and everything else delivered to their cells by staff. So-called "supermax" prisons, designed specifically to hold prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, cost two to three times as much to build and operate as conventional prisons.
Professional organizations and human rights experts are sounding the alarm. Last year the American Psychiatric Association adopted a policy recommending that persons with serious mental illness not be subjected to prolonged solitary confinement. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry similarly urged a ban on the solitary confinement of children. The American Bar Association recommends strict limits on solitary confinement. And in a 2011 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture concluded that in some circumstances solitary confinement can constitute an act of torture prohibited by international law.
As concerns mount about the human and financial costs of solitary confinement, some states are choosing a different path. Maine, Colorado and Michigan have dramatically reduced solitary confinement. Mississippi and Illinois closed entire supermax prisons, saving millions of dollars in the process. The federal prison system—the nation's largest—will soon undergo a comprehensive independent review of its use of solitary. These are hopeful signs. But until much more is done, the United States will retain its dubious distinction as the world's leading practitioner of solitary confinement.
David C. Fathi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project and from 2007 to 2010 was director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch. Fathi has lectured nationally and internationally on criminal justice issues.