Some History of Solitary Confinement in America

By Nick Braune…

In the 1790s in the Philadelphia home of Dr. Benjamin Rush, an important discussion took place. This was during that period when Americans were trying to formulate what it would be like to have a democratic republic which could tap the best qualities in everyone. This particular meeting was held to discuss what would be proper punishment (effective punishment, but not vengeful, cruel or inhumane) for those who broke the laws. What sort of penal system should develop in a thoughtful new democratic republic?

A number of Quakers were at the meeting, and also the great statesman and nation-founder Benjamin Franklin. (If I could travel back in history, I would surely visit Franklin.) At the meeting Franklin probably made several comments about the ineffectiveness of locking criminals up with criminals. He probably reminded the group that the purpose should be to reform people who have gone wrong, not to put them in situations that would make them worse.

Perhaps stimulated by Franklin’s practical thinking and also by some insights from Quakers (famous for quiet meditation), the reformers decided that solitary confinement would be a good idea. Their plan sprang from good intentions: Build an institution where criminals could be all alone, could reconsider their attitudes, and could become “penitent,” asking God for forgiveness and turning around their lives. This first “penitentiary” was for solitary penitents. But the plan didn’t work. Solitary confinement did not lead to reformed lives but rather to terrible nervous breakdowns and to worse forms of behavior. The Quakers soon recognized the folly and admitted their error.

I recently learned about that early Philadelphia meeting from a new documentary, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard,” produced by an interreligious coalition which gathers data and tries to bring “light and transparency” to America’s immense prison system. The coalition agrees with international standards which consider solitary confinement a form of torture. For the DVD, google the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. (nrcat.org/backyard)

In the 1890s, a century after the Philadelphia meeting, solitary confinement was almost outlawed in America. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller, who was also a physician, pointed to the terrible psychological consequences of the practice: “Numbers of prisoners 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.” Miller’s 1890 description of victims falling into those three conditions — catatonic, raging or suicidal — also confirms research done today. (My source: Washington Post editorial, July 1, 2012. This editorial condemning solitary confinement is part of an immense sea-change on this question over the last few years.)

The Washington Post reports on a “human rights issue we cannot ignore”: the U.S. has a higher number of prisoners in this torturous confinement than any democracy in the world. Right this second there are probably 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in this country, some for months, years. Interestingly, when the state of Maine began re-conceptualizing its policies recently, it found out that it had more people in solitary confinement than did all of England…even though England has 40 times more people than Maine!

America’s solitary confinement practices, symbolized by the “supermax” prisons heralded during the Clinton years, are too expensive, don’t fix bad behavior, and are increasingly out of sync with the practices of many other countries. More importantly, these cruel practices are immoral, as the National Religious Campaign against Torture rightly insists.

Quick Note: Curious about Texas? According to a Houston Chronicle article by Diane Schiller last year, there are 5,205 in long term isolation, “administrative segregation,” and another 4,000 serving short term stints in isolation in Texas. Also the Texas Observer in 2010 ran an article about children in Texas held in pre-trial solitary (for their own protection, it is said) sometimes for weeks or months.

Another Quick Note: The 20-minute DVD mentioned earlier, http://www.nrcat.org/backyard, is easily available for under ten dollars. It was shown last week during the regular Sunday service at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in San Juan, and the discussion afterward was said to be lively and thoughtful.

[This piece also appears in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, 8-21-12]

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