Solitary Confinement: Cruel, Unusual and Soon to be Illegal?

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Maine State prisoner placed in solitary confinement (Image Credit: PBS)

The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution holds a phrase that has sparked debates for centuries: “cruel and unusual punishment”, which is deemed unconstitutional. Its interpretation has evolved over the history of the country. Initially, it was aimed at stopping torture, but later on, it grew to shielding inmates from humiliating treatment, ensuring they received proper medical care, and regulating disciplinary actions. The definition of this phrase is still shifting, and H.R.4972, commonly called the End Solitary Confinement Act, introduced in the House by Representative Cori Bush (D), is pushing for further changes.

But what does solitary confinement entail, and why is it so opposed? The reality is grim. A solitary confinement cell has an average dimension of 6×9 feet– just a couple feet wider than a king-size bed. Inmates are in their cells for 23 hours daily and have no interaction with the world around them. Meals come through a small slot, and a maximum of one hour of exercise outside is in a cage. No windows, no daylight – soul-crushing isolation.

The minimum amount of time spent in solitary confinement is 15 consecutive days. However, the majority of inmates spend much longer in this state. More than a quarter are sentenced to 1-3 months, and 23% of prisoners spend over a year in solitary confinement.

It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to be reduced to a cell the size of a mattress, with no interaction with the outside world, for over a month. A study conducted by Harvard Medical psychiatrist Stuart Grassian showed that solitary confinement does more harm than good to all parties involved. Inmates in solitary confinement are characterized as psychotic, suicidal, and obsessive. However, not only does this method of punishment severely damage the mental health of inmates in the long run, but it also increases reoffending rates, especially violent crime.

These statistics have prompted Representative Bush of Missouri and her coalition of House Democrats to classify solitary confinement as “psychological torture,” citing its disproportionate impact on marginalized communities such as black and brown people, adolescents, and LGBTQ+ individuals.

This is where the End Solitary Confinement Act comes in– emphasizing the need to treat prisoners humanely in order to achieve the original goal of prisons: rehabilitation so that offenders can integrate into society to become principled citizens. The act enforces a maximum of four hours in solitary confinement, reserved only for extreme cases where de-escalation is needed. Even then, a staff member must meet with the inmate once an hour. The bill would also mandate that incarcerated people are guaranteed access to at least 14 hours of time outside of their cells a day, including access to seven hours of educational, vocational, financial, and mental health programming. Vulnerable populations, such as those who suffer from mental health issues, are prevented from being put in solitary confinement, with alternatives being proposed. States that defy the bill stand to lose 10% of their federal funding for prisons. 

This bill follows efforts by many states to make solitary confinement more humane, including a law passed by Virginia in 2020 to decrease isolation hours, include more time for recreational activities, and require prisons to record reasons for the punishment. The Decarcerate program in Arkansas has banned solitary confinement for those deemed vulnerable, including young people and those suffering from preexisting mental health issues. However, the End Solitary Confinement Act standardizes these guidelines nationwide, ensuring that incarcerated people around the United States have the same rights.

Senate Democrats introduced a similar bill last fall in addition to statewide initiatives. The End Solitary Confinement Act, on the other hand, goes far further. The Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce, a collection of groups working to eradicate solitary confinement in federal correctional and detention facilities, as well as almost 150 civil rights and criminal justice organizations, have approved the bill. President Biden indicated at the start of his administration that he would try to “end the practice of solitary confinement,” but he has yet to remark on his support for the Bill.

Currently, the Bill has been referred to the House Judiciary, and if the legislation passes through, it is expected to change the lives of over 122,000 inmates.

Written by Aanya Shah

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