A solitary cell: alone in a broken prison system

The media has us fooled once again. With shows on television such as “Orange is the New Black,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Blacklist,” the media has convinced us that we know how the prison system works.

The general public easily pictures tough interrogations, emotional confessions, inmate fighting, scandals and sometimes revolts when referring to the institutions where criminals go to serve their time.

While these aspects may constitute a part of prison life, many people overlook the serious forms of punishment that go on within prison walls, most notably solitary confinement. Recently, the New York State prison system has rethought its use of solitary confinement for inmates.

The New York Times reported, “Corrections officials took a major step toward reform by agreeing to new guidelines for the maximum length prisoners may be placed in solitary. The state will also curb the use of solitary for the most vulnerable groups of inmates (such as pregnant women, juveniles and those with developmental disabilities).”

Solitary confinement has serious psychological effects stemming from prisoners’ isolation from human contact. DePaul criminal justice professor Dr. Traci Schlesinger is well aware of the effects that solitary confinement can have on prisoners and believes solitary can be considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

“In terms of cruel, there’s a lot of negative mental health outcomes that are associated with solitary confinement, such as difficulty with memory and concentration, trauma, difficulty processing thoughts, paranoia, panic attacks, mental health disorders, confusion, depression, etc,” she said.

In terms of unusual, Schlesinger sites the disparate nature on deciding who is put in solitary confinement.

“There’s a wide variety of punishments that prisons can use when prisoners are written up for infractions, but only certain prisoners written up for infractions are actually put in solitary confinement,” she said. “(Research) keeps finding evidence of racial disparity in terms of who gets put in solitary.”

However, Schlesinger is as concerned with crime prevention as with the disciplinary measures that prisons use.

“Really good evidence shows that prisons increase people’s likelihood to commit a future act of violence,” she said. “When we think of alternatives to prison, the alternatives aren’t about what to do after a crime is committed, the alternatives always have to be about how we can create a society with lower crime rates.”

Schlesinger’s proposition is extremely useful as it sheds light on the difficult problem of crime prevention. A shift of focus from disciplinary actions to an avoidance of crime altogether needs to take place in order for prisons to truly be reformed. This is of importance because it pertains to the way in which our society views discipline and punishment. Is it necessary for punishment to be inhumane to deter our society from committing crimes?

I think not. Although some may argue that the use of harsh punishments gives criminals what they seemingly deserve, I see harsh punishments as a historic step backward. For example, during the 18th century, prisoners were burned alive, quartered, hacked and sliced to death.

These cruel forms of punishment manifest power; they demonstrate a sort of negative control that serves a very unnecessary purpose: to show a prisoner the twisted, barbaric, inhumane consequences of their actions. While we don’t see punishment such as this in modern day society, we do see a manifestation of power that seems to have somewhat of a skewed purpose.

Solitary confinement is meant to mentally break a person and doesn’t really account for any sort of rebuilding or correcting process. As Schlesinger brings to our attention, “People go to prison for (an amount of time), and we don’t think about what happens when they come back into our communities.”

In other words, these prisoners that are broken down from solitary confinement seemingly come out of prison with more problems than they came in with. And for what? A demonstration of power?

This situation appears to be Orwellian in nature: a mechanism of power to control the people. Ultimately what is at stake here is not only the prison system and solitary confinement, but also our definition of punishment. Power should be used to help criminals reform their lives, not to break them down and then release them back into our society as dazed, confused, and utterly broken individuals.

The prison system seems to be a vicious cycle of pure damage toward the human mind, body and spirit. Until we can fix this problem, prisoners will continue to know firsthand what it means to go to hell and back.