WATCH: How the U.S. Became the World Leader in Solitary Confinement

April 17, 2017

Around 80,000 prisoners across America are being held in solitary confinement — many of them for months or years at a time.

Critics call the prolonged use of solitary confinement torture, pointing to research on its heavy mental toll.

But when solitary was first introduced in America in the late 18th century, it wasn’t intended to be a punishment. In fact, solitary was first put into practice at U.S. prisons by a pacifist spiritual community called the Quakers, as part of an experiment to improve prison conditions and rehabilitate inmates.

“There was a belief that you could put a prisoner in his own solitary cell, freed from the evil influences of modern society, and if you put them in that cell, they would become like a penitent monk, free to come close to God and to their own inner being, and they would naturally heal, heal from the evils of the outside society,” Stuart Grassian, a clinical psychiatrist who has studied the long-term impact of isolation in prison, says in Last Days of Solitary, a new FRONTLINE documentary premiering Tues., April 18.

Explore how that “noble experiment” became an “absolute catastrophe,” in Grassian’s words, in the above excerpt — which unspools the 200-year history of solitary confinement in the U.S.

Though the U.S. remains the world leader in the use of long-term solitary confinement, in recent years, more than 30 states have begun to experiment with reforms aimed at reducing its use — a trend whose risks and rewards are explored up-close in Last Days of Solitary.

Filmed inside Maine State Prison’s solitary confinement ward by Dan Edge and Lauren Mucciolo over the past three years, Last Days of Solitary traces the prison’s experiment to scale back its use of solitary, and follows the experiences of five men who have spent considerable time in isolation — one of whom goes on to murder another inmate after being released back into the prison’s general population.

Gripping, immersive, and raw, the film also delves into the latest research on the psychological impact of long-term isolation, and what effects offenders carry with them back into the community.

“It leaves a scar on you that you won’t forget, and you can’t heal it no matter how good you are,” one inmate tells FRONTLINE of his time in solitary.

Last Days of Solitary premieres Tues., April 18 at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check local listings) and online.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

As Biden Announces End of U.S. ‘Combat Mission’ in Iraq, 21 FRONTLINE Docs Provide Context
President Biden said July 26 the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is drawing to a close. These documentaries illuminate the Iraq War and its aftermath.
July 28, 2021
THE PEGASUS PROJECT Live Blog: Major Stories from Partners
A curated and regularly updated list of news articles from our partners in “The Pegasus Project,” a collaborative investigation among 17 journalism outlets around the world.
July 28, 2021
‘A disturbing shooting’: Salt Lake County district attorney says officer was justified in killing handcuffed man
An exasperated district attorney tried to get two points across at a Thursday news conference. The first is that as the law is currently written, Longman’s shooting was justified. The second is that Gill thinks the law should be changed. 
July 22, 2021
What Is the Fatemiyoun Brigade and Why Does It Make the Taliban Nervous?
Amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Taliban leaders claim Iran is mobilizing its proxy militia the Fatemiyoun for civil war within Afghanistan.
July 20, 2021