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Should prisons use solitary confinement?

Posted by Joanna Weiss  June 3, 2013 01:15 PM

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He was locked alone in a six-by-eight foot cell for 23 hours a day, stripped of clothing and bed sheets for days at a time, forbidden from exercising, even with push-ups. As Bradley Manning's Wikileaks trial moves forward this week, attention has refocused on his treatment at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia in 2011 -- a turn in solitary confinement that a United Nations investigation has labeled cruel, inhuman, and degrading.

Manning's situation might have been extreme, but it highlights a prison practice that's increasingly under scrutiny nationwide -- and in Massachusetts, where about 500 prisoners are held in solitary confinement every day.

Some prison officials say solitary confinement is a necessary practice, key to keeping unruly prisoners in line, or keeping violent people from hurting one another. But many call it cruel and counterproductive. A Boston Globe editorial today lends support to a bill that would prohibit long-term solitary confinement in Massachusetts. Should Bradley Manning have been kept in solitary? Should anyone? Below are some opinions on the practice. Add yours to the comments, or tweet at the hashtag #solitaryconfinement.

A Self-Fulfilling Punishment

Thumbnail image for James Alan Fox Headshot.jpgAmericans easily ignore the out-of-sight/out-of-mind practice of solitary confinement. However, isolated incarceration of PFC Bradley Manning, even as a pre-trial detainee under suspicion of leaking classified information, should encourage us to take a hard look at this barbaric approach. In Manning’s case, the government claimed that his virtual around-the-clock segregation in a stark setting was for his own good – necessary to prevent suicide. How ironic it is to employ solitary confinement, with its negative effects on a prisoner's mental health, as a strategy for managing those deemed to be a suicide-risk. Human beings are not meant for long-term social isolation. Too often, prisoners, suffering from sensory deprivation and despair, choose to escape by way of a pine box.
James Alan Fox, @jamesalanfox
The Lipman Family Professor of Criminology. Law and Public Policy, Northeastern University
Crime and Punishment” blog,

Prison isn't supposed to be pleasant

As one who has both worked in and toured these units, I can tell you the inmates residing in them are not living in solitude. They are visited daily by security staff, medical staff, counseling staff, clergy and administrative staff. They just don’t get to pick and choose whom they see, call or socialize with. Isn’t the purpose of prison the removal of individuals from society at large? Prison is not supposed to be a pleasant place. While prisons should be humane, they should not be enjoyable. Inmates will always complain about their conditions.

Patrick Dunleavy, former deputy inspector general, NY State Corrections Dept.
The Washington Times, March 7, 2013

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via and

A day in the life

I wake up at lunch 11:00 AM. Eat a white sack and then read or write/sweep floor/clean/bird bath in sink until 4:30PM dinner/styro, eat that. On Fridays and Tuesdays I workout or do crunches at that time too. Then pace from 4:30 to 8:30 or 10:30. I read and write at desk and pace. Each a little. Then second white sack at 8:30 PM. Go to sleep around 3 or 4 AM. It sounds…bad doesn’t it? And it would be without me doing my heavy workout and having all the dreams I could possibly want to come to me when I sleep. I think because the days are so bland my dreams are more vivid.
Five-year solitary confinement prisoner, Utah State Prison
Solitary Watch

Solitude breeds anger

I remember the violent fantasies that sometimes seized my mind so fully that not even meditation—with which I luckily had a modicum of experience before I was jailed—would chase them away. Was the uncontrollable banging on my cell door, the pounding of my fists into my mattress, just a common symptom of isolation? I wonder what happens when someone with a history of violence is seized by such uncontrollable rage. A 2003 study of inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU by University of California-Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney found that 88 percent of the SHU population experiences irrational anger, nearly 30 times more than the US population at large.
Shane Bauer, imprisoned in Iran
Mother Jones, November/December 2012

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weiss.jpegBoston.comment is an exchange for ideas about Boston and beyond, brought to you by the Boston Globe editorial page and edited by Globe columnist Joanna Weiss. We're the sponsor of's #LabDebates and the creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure mayoral game.

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