Craig Haney: Solitary Confinement is a “Tried-and-True” Torture Device

Dr. Craig Haney, psychiatrist and expert on the effects of prolonged isolation.

Dr. Craig Haney, psychiatrist and expert on the effects of prolonged isolation.

April 22, 2014

Dr. Craig Haney is a psychiatrist who has studied the effects of prolonged isolation on inmates. He spoke to FRONTLINE about his research, and how and why solitary confinement is used in America today. This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on Sept. 12, 2013.

What is solitary confinement?

Solitary confinement is the confinement of prisoners in a cell, usually for 22 to 23, in some instances 24, hours a day, where they’re prevented from having access to any common activities which prisoners elsewhere in the prison might engage in.

So these are people who essentially are in solitary confinement, living their entire lives within the perimeter of their cells, cells which are somewhere usually between 6 and 8 square feet in dimension, the size of a small bathroom, a parking lot space. If you have a king-size bed at home, it’s a little larger than a king-size bed, but not much.

This means they basically eat and sleep and defecate all within a few feet of each other and basically get out of their cells typically once a day or once every other day and are taken to an exercise area where under most circumstances they exercise by themselves, so even there they’re prevented from having any contact with other human beings.

Essentially they’re denied the opportunity to have meaningful social contact or meaningful social interaction with anyone. …

Can you give me a sense … [of] the magnitude of this practice and use in America? No other nation in the world, as far as I’m aware, uses it to the extent it is used here.

I think the United States leads the world not only in the rate at which we incarcerate our citizens but the rate at which we put those incarcerated citizens in long-term solitary confinement.

The best estimates we have suggest that about 80,000 people or more are currently being held in solitary or solitary-type conditions. That’s unheard of in any other nation, and frankly, in my opinion, it was unheard of in the United States until about 30 or so years ago, when we began to increasingly put people in long-term solitary confinement.

What’s the history here? … What was going on?

In my opinion, the reason solitary confinement began to be used in the ’80s and ’90s has to do with the rapid expansion of the prison system in the United States. … You had terribly overcrowded conditions and prisons that looked like they were about to become out of control.

You also had a change in correctional philosophy that occurred in the United States in the 1970s. Prison systems up until that point had existed, at least in theory, to provide rehabilitative services to prisoners, the idea being that they would get out of prison, or at least have an opportunity to get out of prison in better shape than they went in.

We abandoned that commitment in the mid-1970s, and we embraced and set a prison-for-punishment rationale. Among other things, what that meant is that prison systems had fewer and fewer incentives to offer prisoners. There were fewer programs; there were fewer ways of shaping prisoner behavior by offering them positive things to do.

And so, having been denied the opportunity to use carrots, they began to use sticks. They began to punish prisoners in order to control them, and one of the tried-and-true, old-time ways of punishing prisoners is to put them in the hole. …

The third component to this is that there were increasing numbers of mentally ill prisoners coming into the prison system. Their behavior was harder to understand; it was harder to control. Prison systems didn’t have the resources to properly deal with them, and so solitary confinement increasingly became a repository for mentally ill prisoners who the prison system believed it couldn’t control any other way.

Had there been any other occasion in America, in penological history, when solitary confinement had been tried or had been used?

Solitary confinement was the imprisonment method of choice in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. When prisons proliferated in the United States in the early 19th century, the model of imprisonment that was in use was basically a solitary confinement model. …

Eventually that model was abandoned, in part because there was widespread recognition that it was doing terrible damage to the people who were placed there. … It became the exception rather than the norm by the 20th century. …

Among the various people who toured the U.S. prisons in the 19th century and commented famously on them was Alexis de Tocqueville, who was taken aback by the use of solitary confinement in the United States and its effect on people and talked about the way in which it drove people mad. “It devours, and it kills,” he said, “and does nothing to reform them.” …

Tell me more about your studies of the psychological effects of solitary confinement. …

Studying isolation in U.S. prisons is a challenging task because these are environments which by definition are hidden environments. They’re protected by laws; they’re protected by correctional policy. And my access to these places has oftentimes been in the context of litigation, where I have a court order, where a judge requires a prison system to allow me to have access to the environments themselves and also to the prisoners who I want to interview.

I study solitary confinement by interviewing the people who are affected by it, who live in these environments. I try always to select, when I can, a representative sample of prisoners, so oftentimes I will interview prisoners who I randomly select … so I can understand how the average prisoner in these environments is being affected by what’s happening to them. …

The patterns of effects are very similar. … Some prisoners react very negatively very quickly. They experience what has been termed “isolation panic.” The experience of being in a cell by oneself, isolated in a place where other prisoners are isolated, facing the deprivation of social contact, is overwhelming for people, and some people react with extreme anxiety reactions in the very beginning of this process.

If a prisoner gets past that initial period and begins to settle in the environment, oftentimes the next thing that envelops them is depression. They begin to feel hopeless. They’re denied the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities, not just social interaction but typically meaningful activities of any kind, and they begin to lose a sense of purpose. Some prisoners begin to lose contact with reality.

We are, in ways that we take for granted, social beings, social creatures. We depend on each other for not just stimulation but for a sense of self. A grounding in a social community just in our interactions with other people, how other people react to us, our ability to influence the world by having meaningful interaction and communicating with other people, all of these things are intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. And when you take that away from people, many people are destabilized by it. They begin to question their existence.

I’ve had prisoners tell me that they’ve done outrageous things in solitary confinement just to prove that they’re still there, that they can have an effect on the world even though the effect on the world that they’re having is to provoke physical punishment from the correctional staff in the form of cell extractions or violent encounters with staff members.

Other prisoners begin to deteriorate mentally. They have a difficult time exercising their cognitive capacities. They report decreases in the ability to concentrate or focus, memory deficits.

Other prisoners become very frustrated and angry. They find themselves becoming irritated at the smallest thing, and sometimes those irritations turn into not just irritation but anger and then rage, and they find themselves exploding over the smallest insult or affront.

Other prisoners have a difficult time controlling their emotion, so they will tell you that they are sad sometimes but happy others, and they’re not sure what external stimuli are causing this shift in their emotion. They experience these mood swings without any obvious, precipitating event in a larger environment.

The other thing that happens across the board to virtually everybody in these environments is very subtle, but it is very disabling if and when somebody is released from solitary confinement, and that is that people lose the ability to interact socially with others.

Social interaction becomes something for many prisoners that is anxiety-arousing. Because they have over time so little experience with it, they begin to lose the ability to actually communicate or engage with other human beings. Their social skills, their range of abilities that all of us have that we take for granted — our ability to communicate verbally, to communicate nonverbally, to feel appropriate emotion in social settings and so on — all of these things begin to erode.

And prisoners find themselves self-isolating. The awkwardness of being in solitary confinement sometimes leads prisoners not to seek social contact but to avoid it. Sometimes they tell their families, “Don’t visit me; don’t bother; I don’t want to see you anymore.” …

I’ve had prisoners tell me that the first time they’ve been given an opportunity to interact with other people, they can’t do it. They don’t want to do it. They don’t come out of their cell. I’ve had prisoners tell me that they’ve lost control of their bladder because they’re so anxious. They’re frightened by a simple thing like having an interaction with another person where they’re not in restraints.

Obviously, this social atrophy, the anxiety which surrounds social interaction, can be extremely disabling and problematic for people who are released from solitary confinement, either released back into the larger prison community or, even more poignantly, released from solitary confinement into the larger society.

I would imagine that most of the people in solitary confinement are never getting out, are they? I mean, these are the worst of the worst who are never getting out?

Actually, most of the people in solitary confinement do get out. It’s the unusual prison system — there are some — that keeps the bulk of people in solitary confinement in there indefinitely. …

You can go to solitary confinement units around the country, sadly unsettlingly, and see people being released directly from solitary confinement out into the free world, sometimes with no transition whatsoever. …

When they’re put in that situation, it’s terrifying, and for some of them it’s a terror that they never get over. So you find them self-isolating in their homes, self-isolating in their communities, avoiding their families because they simply can’t get back to the point where they’re comfortable around other human beings. …

One thing we’ve noticed … is the prevalence of self-harm among inmates in long-term solitary confinement. … What’s going on there?

One of the most unsettling things about solitary confinement is the extent to which there are mentally ill prisoners there, the extent to which there are higher rates of suicide, and the very high rates of self-harm that take place inside these units.

Some of the suicide and self-harm is a function of prisoners being mentally ill. These are people who should never have been placed there in the first place. But in some instances, suicide and certainly self-harm occurs in people who have no prior history of it and who don’t necessarily have a diagnosis of mental illness, other than their suicidality or their tendency to harm themselves.

It’s difficult to explain exactly why that’s the case, but in terms of the people who I’ve talked to about it, I think it has to do with their complete isolation and loneliness and lack of any other kind of stimulation.

People begin actually to no longer have feelings and to be not sure whether they can have feelings. For some people, harming themselves is a way of creating a feeling, creating a reaction, feeling something intense and having control over that feeling in an environment where they don’t have control over any other feelings or any other activities in which they can engage.

Some of them have told me that harming themselves is the only time they feel like they’re alive, paradoxically, because for the rest of the time, their existence is empty. There is a nothingness to it which they can’t break in any other way.

For obvious reasons, it’s a very dangerous syndrome once prisoners begin to engage in it, because sometimes self-harm is difficult to control, sometimes it leads to fatal damage, and in any event is a kind of pathological adaptation to a pathological environment.

In several of the prisons we’re working in, self-harm is treated as a disciplinary issue. …

There’s a terrible irony to the way in which many prison systems handle issues of self-harm and suicidality, attempted suicide. They view it as a disciplinary matter rather than a mental health issue, rather than a desperate attempt to adapt to an otherwise desperate environment, so they punish prisoners as they do for all disciplinary infractions. …

The consequence of a disciplinary infraction is typically that you’re going to be extended in solitary confinement. So, ironically, the very thing which is driving you to engage in this behavior is the thing which the prison system decides to give you in even greater doses.

Now, it’s obviously an extremely contentious issue whether solitary confinement constitutes torture, but could you talk to me a little bit about the way that solitary confinement is certainly used as torture in places? …

Solitary confinement is one of the tried-and-true devices that torturers worldwide engage in. You read accounts of people who have been tortured; you read descriptions of how torture is conducted; you read manuals of torturous interrogation, and solitary confinement is always a featured component.

It’s a featured component because people who do torture understand that placing human beings in severely isolated conditions puts them in pain. It renders them vulnerable to manipulation; it destabilizes them. For many people, it puts them at the precipice of madness.

Prisoners in solitary confinement — not all of them, but many of them — will tell you that they struggle to maintain their sanity on a day-to-day basis, and I think torturers understand this, and they attempt to capitalize on it.

… I’ve met many inmates who are relatively recently out of solitary confinement. Some of them really are OK, and we’re talking 10-, 15-, 18-year stints in solitary. I don’t expect there to be a clear answer to this, but do you have any insights into why some people seem more resilient to the effects than others?

People vary in their ability to withstand the rigors of solitary confinement. I typically talk about solitary confinement as presenting people with a risk of profound harm. It’s a risk, and not everybody succumbs to it, and there are various reasons why different people seem to manage it better than others.

I hasten to add that I’m not sure anybody goes through long-term solitary confinement without having been changed in significant ways. They may not be obvious. The damage that has occurred may not be apparent, even to people who are very close to them. But most of them have confided to me that there are parts of their life and parts of themselves that they feel they’ve been robbed of and that they may never get back, even though they otherwise may seem to be able to adjust naturally and normally to the social settings in which they’re interacting once they’ve been released. …

I think also different prisoners follow different strategies in solitary confinement to survive it. Prisoners who have managed to impose personal order where there is none, who have managed to impose discipline on themselves where otherwise there wouldn’t be any, and who most importantly have managed to fill their days with activities, even though they are self-generated activities and in a certain sense almost contrived — schedules where they exercise at a certain time of day; they read at a certain time of day; they write letters for another period of time; they act as though they have a normal social routine as one would in a normal social world — somehow manage to fill the emptiness of solitary confinement in such a way that they fool themselves for a period of time, sometimes for a very long period of time, and it keeps their sense of self intact. …

… What’s going on in Pelican Bay?

Pelican Bay is in many ways the first real, technologically sophisticated, supermax prison in the United Sates. It is an environment in which the 19th-century concept of isolation has been melded with a 21st-century technological prison environment.

Prisoners are housed in small cells that are controlled by correctional officers who don’t really interact with them on a very extensive basis. There is a control room where the prisoner movement is overseen by correctional officers who push buttons and open doors and communicate with them over intercoms and so on.

When it was opened in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it began to fill up, it was the most isolating environment in the United States. When I first went there I’d never seen anything like it, and I’d been going in and out of prisons, even solitary confinement units, for years.

Pelican Bay was a different category of prison, a true supermax prison where prisoners were, by the way it was designed as well as the way it was run, prevented from having any real interaction with one another or with correctional staff on all but the most limited basis.

It’s an environment where prisoners exercise no more than an hour and a half a day in a concrete-encased exercise area that is euphemistically called a yard, but it bears no relationship to what anyone else would call a yard. Even when they’re in this yard, prisoners get only a glimpse of overhead sky and can see nothing else except the concrete walls around them.

They’re monitored on a television camera by the correctional officers in the control booth, and when it’s time for them to end their exercise after an hour or hour and a half, they’re addressed over an intercom, the door to the exercise area opens automatically, and they walk back into the housing unit and eventually back into their cell.

They have no contact visits, so again, these are people who can be held there for years on end and never touch another human being with affection or friendship.

What’s the point of Pelican Bay?

Pelican Bay has, I think, an overriding purpose of separating people out of the larger prison population for various reasons, either because they’ve engaged in disciplinary infractions for which they’re being punished, or in a very large number of cases, because they are suspected of being gang members, have been validated as gang members by the Department of Corrections, and they’ve been placed there to be separated from the rest of the prison population.

I think it’s hard to deny that all of these people are being placed there to be punished. Whether that’s the only intention, or whether it is necessarily the conscious intention of the people who run the place it, it is hard to deny that that environment and environments like it have been designed in order to inflict punishment on the people who are there.

I say that because the purpose of segregating people from the larger prison population can be achieved or accomplished in a variety of different ways. It does not necessarily have to include the profound levels of deprivation that are inflicted on people at places like Pelican Bay.

The lack of educational opportunities or vocational training, meaningful activities of any other kind where you interact with other human beings, all of these things could be done under controlled conditions where people were nonetheless separated from the larger prisoner population. …

Could you tell me how many of the inmates there you met? … Tell me what you found. …

… When I first went to Pelican Bay in the early 1990s, I was taken aback by several things. One was the absolute, overwhelming isolation which had been created there, isolation which I’d never seen anywhere else.

I was also taken aback by the number of prisoners who appeared to be mentally ill. This was something that I was not prepared for. Pelican Bay was not supposed to be a place that was designed to house the mentally ill. It was designed to house people who were supposedly the so-called worst of the worst, whatever that meant in correctional circles. That was who was supposed to be there. …

The study that I did in the early 1990s was really the first look at what a large number of people in a place like Pelican Bay — there weren’t very many of them at the time — were experiencing. … I was shocked and dismayed by the very high prevalence of symptoms of psychological trauma and what are oftentimes called the psychopathological effects of isolation or solitary confinement.

This was a prevalent study. It was a study that looked at what’s the average group of prisoners in this prison [and] what are they going through. And what they were going through was terrible to behold. There were very, very high numbers of them who were experiencing high levels of anxiety, high levels of depression.

They were having problems with cognitive abilities, thinking disorders or disturbances. They reported ruminations, getting stuck, their mind getting stuck on things and not being able to get it off. They reported mood swings in addition to the depression. Sometimes they reported inexplicable changes in mood.

They reported high levels of irritation, frustration, anger. They talked to me about getting obsessed with little things in their environment: a sound, a smell, something that they saw, the lights bothering them. They were suffering disordered sleep. And a number of them, not the majority but a fairly significant number of them, were having thoughts of suicide.

Others of them reported to me that even though they had only been there for what was a few years — and I say “only” a few years because many of them ended up spending much longer than a few years there — they no longer felt comfortable around other people. And a number of them told me that they had discouraged family members and friends from visiting them. …

They were overall suffering. And this wasn’t just a few people; it wasn’t only the mentally ill prisoners. … Many of them were people who had never experienced any form of mental health problem or any mental illness in the past. I looked at their files. I was able to determine that. Yet they were experiencing these symptoms which were very much akin to the symptoms that people experience when they are in the throes of a mental illness.

You’ve said a couple of times that a mentally ill person should never be put in isolation in the first place. Why not?

Segregation is an excruciatingly stressful environment for even healthy people to survive. Some people can do it. Many healthy people can’t.

Mentally ill people are vulnerable in a variety of different ways. By virtue of their illness, they lack the resiliency that strong, healthy people have to stand up to these environments, to rebound from the pain that they’re experiencing. Mentally ill people also have a very difficult time devising survival strategies in these environments. …

Mentally ill prisoners have none of those skills. They are already in the abyss, and if they could understand or could devise ways of getting out of it, they would have already done it. So when they’re placed in an environment which puts increasing pressures on people to try to survive, to try to be normal, to try to get through to their next day, many of them are helpless in the face of this.

They can’t control themselves, they can’t control their reactions, they can’t figure out what’s happening to them, and many of them spiral further downward.

… What is ADX? What is it for, and what were your first impressions of it when you first visited it? …

ADX is shorthand for “administrative maximum,” and it is the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ supermax prison located in Florence, Colo. It is a new-generation supermax prison. It imposes perhaps the highest levels of isolation I’ve seen in any prison anywhere.

It’s because of the unique design of the cells, where there’s an inner gate as well as an outer door, so prisoners are several feet more removed even from the hallway of the housing unit in which they live.

The cells at ADX are more self-contained. They have a shower in the cell, so prisoners don’t even get out of their cells to take a shower, which they do in most other solitary confinement or supermax-type units.

So there is more completeness to the isolation at ADX than anything I’ve seen anywhere else. There are a few places here and there that have modeled themselves on ADX, but ADX does it on a large-scale basis. The prison is set up to do just that.

It is one of those supermaxes that when you enter, it feels like there’s no one here. It’s an unusual experience for somebody like myself who goes into a lot of prisons and even a lot of solitary confinement units.

There’s always an experience when you go into a solitary confinement unit where prisoners realize there’s somebody in the unit and maybe an outsider in the unit — something’s happening — and they’ll come to the door or the bars of their cell to see what’s going on. Sometimes they’ll put a little mirror out so they can look down the hallway or the tier to see who’s coming in the cell.

There are a few of these places, however, that are so isolating that prisoners don’t even do that. They don’t even vicariously participate in what might substitute for a pathetic social life in the hallway of the unit where they’re living, because they’re that far removed from even that hallway. ADX is one of those places. …

There are certain institutional imperatives. You have to feed prisoners. They have to have an opportunity to get out of their cells to exercise once in a while. But within those parameters, ADX isolates about as effectively and completely as anything I’ve ever seen or can imagine seeing.

Your prison officials have gone on record saying there is no solitary confinement within the federal system, that these prisoners have interactions with corrections officers, as you say, when they bring them food, when they go to exercise, so there is no solitary confinement in the federal system.

With all due respect to my colleagues in the Bureau of Prisons, that’s nonsense. If ADX isn’t solitary confinement, then there has never been such a thing in the history of corrections.

To argue that the interactions which prisoners have with correctional staff disqualifies this environment as solitary confinement overlooks the fact that it is impossible to create a solitary confinement environment in which that’s not the case. …

… So back in the day, what was the idea behind solitary confinement?

Solitary confinement was an innovation, if you will, that is largely attributed to the Quakers. In the late 18th and throughout much of the 19th century, … the idea was that the reason that people engaged in crime was because they had fallen away from God. They were living a not pious enough existence. The mechanism of rehabilitation would be to put them in an environment where they would be encouraged, and one could argue even forced, to reconnect with God, to reconnect with religion.

The term “penitentiary” was the idea based on this philosophy that you would go to prison to do penance, to be penitent, to be pious. And you could best do that, the Quakers thought, if you were alone, if you were by yourself. …

The problem with it was it didn’t work, and it didn’t work even from the beginning. The Quakers were presented early on with evidence that it didn’t work. You can look at reports written in the early 1800s throughout the next several decades showing that it was not only a very expensive thing to do but it was a very dangerous thing to do, because people became profoundly mentally ill. They went mad in these environments.

Eventually the Quakers and everyone else realized the error of our ways, and we moved to a different system, and we stopped using solitary confinement on a long-term basis only, sadly, to return to it in the late 20th century.

… Who’s at ADX? I’m assuming it’s the 400, 500 most dangerous people in America?

The population of ADX, like other supermax prisons, is oftentimes described as the worst of the worst. The theory is that the only people who get sent to these places are the people who are the most dangerous prisoners — not necessarily the most dangerous prisoners in terms of what they’ve done in the outside world, but the most dangerous prisoners in terms of what they’ve done inside the prison system.

There is always a tremendous amount of slippage in that definition. “Worst of the worst,” you know, it’s not really a legal category. It means different things to different people. Sadly, it oftentimes means people who act in ways that are irrational or inexplicable, and that sometimes includes people who are mentally ill. …

They’re not supposed to be at ADX because the Federal Bureau of Prisons has a policy which says that seriously mentally ill prisoners are not to be housed at ADX. … It’s a good policy, but it’s only a good policy if it’s followed, if it’s adhered to. And like most other prison systems, the ADX does not appear to adhere to that policy as scrupulously as they claim to.

How can [ADX] be missing it? Someone with a serious mental illness is going to have a record of their serious mental illness. I imagine that will be scrutinized in someone who’s admitted to ADX?

What happens in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is that the signs and symptoms of someone’s previous mental illness tend to get overlooked when they become candidates to be placed in the ADX.

So these are people who have a background of having been diagnosed as mentally ill but which the Bureau of Prisons’ mental health staff may decide is in remission, or they’ve not manifested that mental illness recently, or they may be rediagnosed in a way that qualifies them for admission to the ADX.

Sadly, what oftentimes happens in cases like that, and it happens in other facilities as well, is that the terrible stress and pain of being placed in an environment like ADX exacerbates pre-existing conditions.

While, for example, a prisoner may have been reasonably well adjusted, at least in terms of their mental health, at a previous institution, when they get to ADX, those pre-existing mental health vulnerabilities which they have are put to the test. They can’t withstand the pressure of that environment because it’s too desolate, depressing, damaging an environment, and they begin to break down and manifest a mental illness.

The other thing that happens is that at ADX, like other facilities, it subjects otherwise healthy people to the rigors of total and complete isolation. Some people, otherwise healthy, no prior pre-existing mental illness identified in their background, get to ADX and begin to develop these symptoms and begin to develop these conditions because of the environment. …

You rarely see them in settings where their developing abnormalities are going to be obvious to you. So it’s very easy to miss unless you proactively look, and that’s something that places like ADX simply don’t do a very good job at.

One thing we’ve identified and noticed and documented, both at ADX and other facilities, is when inmates self-harm to sometimes extraordinary degrees. This isn’t just a little bit of cutting. This is amputating limbs; this is trepanning themselves. This is not treated as mental illness. What is mental illness if it’s not amputating your own limbs? … Often what this seemed to boil down to me is an argument over what mental illness is. …

These supermax environments like ADX operate on a principle of punishment and a principle in which the behavior of the prisoners is understood as a manifestation of nothing but their badness. They are thought to be either explicitly or implicitly the worst of the worst. So by definition, whatever they do is a manifestation or an extension of that badness, and that sadly, tragically includes instances in which they engage in behavior which in any other context would be obviously viewed as a sign or a symptom of psychiatric disorder.

But when it’s engaged in in an environment like ADX and interpreted by people who have been taught to embrace and implement a mindset in which everything that anybody does in this environment is a manifestation of their bad self, then these actions — oftentimes actions which include horrible self-mutilation — end up getting interpreted in the same conventional way.

That is, this is a person who is not mentally ill, not so profoundly damaged that they have done this truly awful thing to themselves, but rather as a form of manipulation, because everything a prisoner does in that environment is interpreted as a form of manipulation, as a form of them attempting to gain advantage in some way, even in some way that, again, in any other context is so bizarre, is so painful to even contemplate that it is unimaginable that anybody would do it in order to gain advantage.

When you’re in these discussions with people who have interpreted this behavior in this way, you ask them, what advantage have they gained by biting off their finger or cutting off their ear or mutilating their genitals? And of course there’s very little in the way of rational response to that. There’s no obvious advantage to somebody doing that to themselves wherever they’re doing it, whatever the context they’re doing it in.

But I think the mindset runs so deep in environments like this, the conditioned unwillingness to extend compassion to the people with whom you’re interacting.

It’s not a comment on the character of the people who work there. It’s a comment on what you have to force yourself to do to work in an environment like that. …

This feels like it relates back to the experiment right at the beginning of your career with [psychologist Philip] Zimbardo, that the very structure of a supermax prison engenders a mindset in those that work there.

I think prisons in general have a tendency to create the kind of mindset in which people on both sides of the bars don’t think much about each other. They can’t.

But it is certainly true that the people who work as correctional officers cannot easily indulge in compassion, feeling, the plight of the people who they’re in charge of confining in these environments. That’s multiplied manifold in solitary confinement.

The people who go to solitary confinement are not at their best when they’re taken there; they’re not at their best when they’re there. But even more importantly, there are very few opportunities for there to be any human connections made in a solitary confinement unit, even like the minimal kind of human connections that get made in mainline prison environments.

Correctional officers can see in a mainline prison environment prisoners acting human. They can see them talking to one another. They can see them eating dinner together. They can see them sharing stories about their families. They can see them in the visiting room interacting with their family members, manifesting, expressing love and affection and so on — all these things that human beings do.

So they can begin to see prisoners on a limited basis as human beings, as not that much different from me at a certain level. None of these things are possible in solitary confinement units. …

Are prisoners who have spent a long time in solitary confinement more likely to kill themselves than other inmates?

Yes. There’s no question that rates of suicide are higher in these environments than they are anywhere else in the prison system. In some places they’re shockingly high. In California, for example, the rates of suicide in isolation units is 10 times higher than they are in prison systems in general, in some instances even higher. …

I think the most reasonable interpretation of that fact is that people get in these environments and they can’t take it. They feel desperate, they feel hopeless, they feel there’s no other way out, and so they take their own lives.

Do we know whether long-term isolation has any effect on an inmate’s likelihood to reoffend once he or she has been released?</p>
There have been several studies of what happens to people when they get out of solitary confinement and are released from the prison system. There are only a few of them, but they’re good studies, and they suggest that there is an increased likelihood of reoffending; that is, that when people who have been in solitary confinement are released, they are more likely to reoffend than people who are being released from nonsolitary confinement units.

The reason I think is not difficult to understand. People who are in solitary confinement are treated badly. They are psychologically harmed by the experience. Many of them, nothing positive has happened to them while they were there.

So even if they’re in that category of a very resilient prisoner who’s not obviously damaged or psychiatrically disordered by having been in solitary confinement, the period of time that they’ve been there in solitary confinement, by definition, has been a rehabilitationless period.

They’re not allowed to do classes; they’re not allowed to do jobs; they’re not allowed to do vocational training. So they’ve been in this sort of inert space for a period of time. …

… What are the alternatives for handling the most disruptive, dangerous or damaged inmates in the system?

… You can control people in the short term with an eye toward addressing whatever it is that has made their behavior dangerous or problematic, rather than putting them in these places and simply leaving them there for years or decades even. …

If the nature of their dangerousness is psychological or psychiatric, they need treatment. If the nature of the dangerousness has to do with conflicts they’re having with other prisoners, then they can be separated.

They also need to be given incentives for engaging in behavior which is positive rather than negative. This is a principle of corrections which is as old as the prison system, and yet we seem to have fallen away from it in the last 30 or 40 years in the United States.

We won’t really be effective at getting rid of or limiting the use of solitary confinement until we have an incentive structure that we create in its place, where we give prisoners a reason to abide by prison rules, where we give them things they can lose that they care about if they violate the rules and regulations of the institutions. If they engage in conflict or violence or aggression with other prisoners, they have things at stake.

Part of what’s happened in the prison system in the United States in the last 30 or 40 years is all of those things that prisoners care about that they once invested in — meaningful education, vocational training program, the opportunity to get skills with which you get a good job when you get out of prison, opportunity to visit with your family, conjugal visits, things that prisoners were very invested in, didn’t want to lose — prison wardens from the old days would say these were the things that they were able to use to keep prisoner behavior under control and on track.

Those things need to come back into the prison system so that prison administrations have the opportunity to address problems with a variety of different responses and solutions, not just punishment, not just solitary confinement.

The other part of this is that solitary confinement units need to end the gratuitous infliction of pain, by which I mean there is a difference between segregating prisoners and placing them in the most deprived environment you can place them in.

So you can, for example, put prisoners in an environment where they’re separate from the rest of the prison population, kept under conditions that are safe, where staff are safe, but nonetheless where you allow them to have an opportunity to engage in activities, where you have an opportunity for them to engage in things that are meaningful to them, where you allow them to have visitation on a contact basis. So you bring them back into the world that you want them to become part of, and you do that very quickly.

You can imagine a system in which you isolate people in a very dramatic way initially, but for a very, very short period of time. And then you immediately begin to move them back in a graduated way to the environment like the one they left, where they’re going to be able to engage in things that matter to them and live in an environment that’s not harmful to them.

We’ve turned all of this on its head unfortunately. We’ve taken people who, by the prison system’s vision of this, have demonstrated an inability to behave in the ways that the system wants them to behave, and we’ve put them in an environment where they are denied an opportunity to demonstrate those abilities, so it’s very difficult for them to work their way out. …

I think that prison systems around the country are very, very slowly beginning to see that this is not a panacea, that in many instances it creates many more problems than it solves, it’s very expensive, and that there are much more cost-effective and intelligent ways of addressing these problems than the supermax solitary confinement solution that we’ve been using.

[Some say that] prisons did used to be run very differently. There were far more incentives to prisoners, and the nation’s prisons were completely out of control. Corrections officers were being killed. … So this has been a necessary period in American correctional history to win control back from the inmates themselves.

… There is no evidence whatsoever that the control, or in some instances lack of control, in U.S. prisons is a result of the use of solitary confinement or supermax-type prisons, no evidence at all.

There is some evidence that prisons have gotten safer in terms of the overall levels of violence. Most people attribute that to a variety of things, including a much more sophisticated approach to security and control, quite apart from the use of supermax or solitary confinement.

We have replaced most of the old, decrepit prisons with much more efficient and effective institutions that allow for much safer environments to be created inside the prisons themselves. The notion that we had to use supermax prisons to get control of the prison population I think is a misreading of history.

We’ve gotten control of the population of our prison system in many places — not everywhere, but many places — but we’ve done this in ways that don’t involve the use of supermax prisons. Many prison systems don’t have supermax prisons, and they’re not out of control or unsafe systems. In fact, ironically, those systems tend to be the best run systems in the country.

It’s the systems that really use supermax to the max, if you will, that are still having problems with their inmate population. California is a good example of this. California prisons are still dealing with overcrowding, still dealing with difficulties in controlling the inmate population. We’ve had an aggressive policy of segregating and isolating prisoners, including gang members, for 20-plus years now. If that was going to work, it would have worked. …

… We now have several incidences in states like Mississippi and like Maine that we’re studying in detail, where the state has radically rowed back on the amount of inmates it puts in isolation. Can you tell me a bit about how those experiments, if you like, have worked and what they show us?

There are several states that have begun to systematically rethink this issue: Maine, Mississippi, Illinois. The reasons in each place are a little bit different, but the outcomes are the same, particularly in Maine and Mississippi, which have been looked at most carefully. The consequence of depopulating the segregation and supermax units has been a very positive one.

I think that the most carefully studied one is in Mississippi, and there the conclusion of not just the people on the outside that were looking at it but also from the people who run the Mississippi Department of Corrections is that it has been a very positive thing. It’s actually resulted in an overall reduction in the amount of violence in the larger prison system, which is something no one predicted.

Now, we’ll look more carefully at this over time. But I think whether or not you actually reduce violence in the larger prison system by reducing the population of people in solitary confinement is separate from the question of whether or not solitary confinement is doing what it’s supposed to do.

It’s sort of ironic that we’re thinking about reducing the population of people in solitary confinement to reduce the violence level overall when solitary confinement was supposed to accomplish the opposite. So it’s a kind of a concession that it really hasn’t done what people thought it was going to do.

Wherever it’s been studied systematically, there’s no evidence that solitary confinement or supermax confinement has reduced violence levels in the prison systems in which it’s been tried. It’s a kind of a convenient argument. It’s got a kind of surface plausibility to it. Except when you look at the data, it’s not true. …

… How could it be that letting some of those guys out, back into the general population, actually brings down institutional violence?

It’s something that we have to study more. But let me tell you what I think may be going on, just as one possible explanation of this, which is that in the way that the existence of solitary confinement has allowed correctional systems and line officer staff to deal with problems by putting people in the hole, by sending them off to solitary confinement and never having to think it through beyond that issue, the absence of having that as a quick and readymade short-term solution forces them to take a different attitude about things, to de-escalate problems before they get to be too severe, to try to get to the bottom of why it is there’s conflict between prisoners, to try to address issues before they get out of hand between larger groups of prisoners and so on. …

I think it changes the consciousness, to a certain extent, of the people who are running the mainline prisons. If we don’t have that as a quick fix, we’re going to have to deal with it some other way. And I think those other ways are more effective ways of dealing with it where you’re going to get to the root of the problem. You’re going to actually try to address the problem in the here and now. …

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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