Opinion: Solitary Confinement -When Solitude Is No Longer a Virtue

Last week, there was a major Congressional briefing on the effects of long-term solitary confinement.

Experts demonstrated that prolonged, isolated confinement causes serious psychological damage. Yet, most courts and legislatures have been unwilling to declare this harsh practice unconstitutional or to change this nation’s current unethical practice. Can anyone hear the cries from the hole?

Many legal scholars understand confinement that is longer than a few weeks or is continued indefinitely to be psychological torture and cruel and unusual punishment because the lack of human contact and sensory deprivation can deeply harm one’s mental state and lead to mental illness or death. EEG studies show diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement, not to mention the lethargy, chronic apathy, depression and despair. The paradox is that the more humans are starved of human interaction and companionship, the more unfit they become for social interaction.

Almost 90 percent of those in solitary confinement cultivate further challenges with “irrational anger” as compared to just 3 percent of the general population. Scholars have attributed this to the extended absence of any opportunities for happiness or joy.  

Yet, today there are at least 70,000 to 100,000 inmates living in isolated conditions in the United States every day (25,000 in super-max prisons alone), and many of these extremely harsh conditions are also in clear violation of international human rights law. How can this be?

A few hundred years ago, religious advocates of solitary confinement argued that it provides the opportunity for one to reflect on one’s sins and that this would lead to reformation. Today, we know that being locked, isolated from one and all, in a cell 48 square feet or smaller will not lead to the positive transformation of the soul that some hope for.

There is currently no empirical evidence that the “hot box” reduces violence or gang presence in prison or that it increases public safety. In fact, a 1997 study in Washington state actually found the opposite — that solitary confinement was correlated with higher recidivism. It is highly likely that one placed in solitary confinement will commit more crimes upon release from incarceration.

Some argue that using long-term isolation helps to provide discipline and prevent violence. However, a major study in 2003 demonstrated that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged by the use of solitary, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois and holding steady in Minnesota.

The violence is due to overcrowding. Over the past 30 years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but hasn’t increased prison space, while work and education programs have been canceled. Prisoners are left idle — a formula for violence.

While there are specific cases where some limited isolation of a criminal is needed for the protection of others, the practice is used in many cases beyond this. At the least, we all can support isolation time limits, better data collection, more mental health screening and care, and reductions in overcrowding and overall incarceration rates. Inmates should be informed as to how long their solitary confinement will be and what they can do to increase or decrease that time. There can be a reduction of isolation by using out-of-cell time and a system of progressive housing when transferring prisoners out of solitary confinement and back into the general outside population.

There is hope for change. Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, New York and Vermont have begun to reform their solitary practices. California and other states must follow their lead to ensure that prisoners are treated more humanely. Congress is discussing the future of this practice; now is the time to make our voices heard.

As Jews, we can be motivated by one of the first statements about the human condition that is made in the Torah, when God said, “lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” — one should never live alone! The Talmud actually compares an isolated lack of social discourse to death: “Choose either a learning partner or death.” Partnership and companionship are part and parcel of a good life.

Only one character in the Torah — he who is stricken with skin blemishes — must live in isolation. This was a particular spiritual remedy for a spiritual ailment used in biblical times that clearly would have no place in today’s system of punitive justice. But even here, it is not in a small, dark space, but rather just beyond the settlement limits, set aside as a space for reflection.

Teshuvah (repentance) is best achieved through positive relationships, not isolation. In the biblical City of Refuge (Ir Ha’Miklat), the residents (prisoners) lived with the Levites (the leaders of the generation). Rehabilitation and growth happens not in isolation but around role models of compassion, spirituality and good values.

Some of the great Jewish sages were victims of solitary confinement. In the second century, 70 rabbinic sages were placed in solitary confinement to translate the Torah into Greek. Most rabbinic teachings portray the result of this torture to have been destructive to Torah. The unified interpretation of the Torah into another language that emerged might demonstrate how confinement destroys the potential for human uniqueness and personal nuance.

While we may embrace solitude as a spiritual practice — and only for the very few, at that! — extreme forced isolation is not an acceptable Jewish model of punishment. As Congress currently debates the future of this practice in America, the Jewish community must continue to be at the forefront of the struggle for human rights.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the senior Jewish educator at UCLA Hillel, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University.