solitary confinement and america’s torture machine

It’s always amusing to hear the debate over capital punishment. The death sentence is carried out on a very small number of prisoners each year, relative to the total prison population in America (which is disproportionately large). It takes years, usually decades for the sentence to be carried out, and occasionally the executed are later found to not have committed the crime in the first place. While I’m not against the death penalty, I am against America’s poor implementation of the practice.

Having said that, if I were to choose, I would certainly choose my own death over indefinite detention. What’s worse is the use of solitary confinement for some prisoners for not just days or even weeks, but decades.

…prisoners in isolation account for just 5 percent of the total prison population, but nearly half of its suicides….

He likened the symptoms seen in solitary prisoners to those seen in soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder….

The demands of hunger-striking California prisoners include a five-year limit on solitary sentences, an end to indefinite sentences, and a formal chance to earn their way back to general-population housing through good behavior.

A five-year limit on solitary sentences still sounds ludicrously high, but it’s better than a lifetime in a bathroom-sized cell with no human contact.

Another article, comparing supermax prisons to gulags. The inmate at the start of the article suffers symptoms of mental illness due to his treatment (he didn’t have such symptoms beforehand) at the prison, not to mention the lack of medical and psychiatric treatment.

In supermax prisons, there are no doubt some prisoners who deserve the confinement that they get. Of special interest are prisoners with anti-social characteristics (high scores on the psychopathy checklist being a viable metric). Inmates with psychopathic characteristics are not insane (they are rational and self-aware), but prone to recidivism, impulsivity, and tendencies toward societal harm. These prisoners arguably deserve their fate, but even for them, solitary confinement is an act of vengeance that does little to promote societal safety or justice. (I do, however, believe there is merit in separating psychopathic prisoners from others, as they negatively influence and terrorize other inmates and threaten the safety of inmates and guards alike.)

However, there are many inmates who do not innately have such tendencies and can more safely be afforded a second chance. If they spend years in social isolation, the likelihood of healthy adjustment outside the walls of the prison are slim. Some might become threats to themselves or to others. Not only are US prisons facilitating torture of inmates; they provide a breeding ground for instability that can cause real harm when inmates are released into the general public.


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