Solitary confinement has been described as a living death. Jack Henry Abbot said about the practice: “Time descends in your cell like the lid of a coffin in which you lie and watch it as it slowly closes over you. When you neither move nor think in your cell, you are awash in pure nothingness. . . . Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”
Solitary confinement, the topic of a new Issue Brief by law professor Laura Rovner released today by ACS, is viewed by much of the developed world as torture. The international community has almost universally condemned the use of long-term isolation. In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) and the Convention Against Torture, and declared that the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. So why then, is use of the practice so rampant in the United States? The good news is it’s gaining renewed scrutiny in the court of public opinion. The question is: How will federal courts respond?
As long ago as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court criticized the use of solitary confinement. Justice Samuel Miller, who was a physician as well as a lawyer, observed that: “A considerable number of the prisoners [subjected to solitary confinement] fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
And as recently as this year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the practice, practically asking for a solitary confinement case, saying: “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.