The Denver Sheriff Department opened its jail doors to ABC reporter Dan Harris so he might get a dose of the "American nightmare" experienced by more than 80,000 inmates today. Last night, ABC's Nightline aired "Locked Up Alone." Harris volunteered to spend 48 hours in the Denver Downtown Detention Center to experience solitary confinement. As he notes in the piece, solitary confinement can cost three times as much as regular inmate housing and results in a significantly higher likelihood that inmates will reoffend upon reentry into the community.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is among the groups referenced by Nightline that recognize prolonged solitary confinement as torture. Nightline notes that, ironically, it was prison reformers who originally pushed for the use of solitary confinement more than 200 years ago, viewing it as a "humane alternative" to hanging. Religious leaders, including the Quakers, believed that total isolation would lead to penitence (hence, the term 'penitentiary' was coined). Instead of becoming penitent, however, prisoners went insane.
In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens visited the Southeastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary and said of the effects of solitary confinement, "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." Like Dickens, the Quakers recognized that solitary confinement caused severe psychological harm; leaders issued an apology for their involvement in developing the practice.
Unfortunately, the United States has not learned its history lesson. Since the 1980s, the American public has accepted, and largely ignored, the explosion of solitary confinement in our prisons, jails and detention centers. From 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40 percent compared to 28 percent. Solitary confinement has become a default management tool, not only as a response to violent behavior, but increasingly as routine practice for minor rule infractions, involuntary protection, and as a means of managing difficult inmates, particularly those with mental illness. Research consistently demonstrates that the psychological effects are devastating. Even those who enter solitary confinement without pre-existing mental illness have experienced hallucinations and demonstrate increased rates of self-mutilation and suicide.
Jail officials admitted to Harris that sometimes placing inmates in solitary confinement only worsens their behavior. During his stay in a solitary confinement cell, one of Harris' fellow inmates stripped off his clothes, urinated all over the floor, then ripped up and shoved pages of the Bible under his cell door (a desperate, but unsuccessful, attempt for a human response).
"After a couple months, your mind starts playing tricks on you," explained Deputy Sheriff Thomas Asay. Asay also pointed out the toll that solitary confinement takes on prison staff, noting the psychological stress of watching human beings break down in isolation every day. As Harris was escorted to his cell, another guard told him, "People need to know what goes on here."
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is grateful to ABC for showing Americans what is happening "in our name and on our dime." As people of faith who affirm the inherent God-given dignity of every person, we must condemn this treatment as immoral. The religious organizations and congregations that belong to NRCAT are educating people of faith about the severe harm caused by solitary confinement and are taking action to end the pervasive use of this destructive practice. This past June, after Senators Richard Durbin and Lindsay Graham made history with the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, NRCAT organized a group of religious leaders to break bread together to end our 23-hour fast - a symbol of the 23 hours of solitude inmates endure each day while in solitary confinement.
During a break from his solitary cell, Harris queries jail officials, "Is there a better way?"
"That's a question that we all are asking, and I don't know what the answer is," answers Sergeant Mike Austin.
We urge ABC to give airtime to corrections officials who have learned that answer. Several states, including Mississippi and Maine, have successfully and safely reduced their use of solitary confinement by using evidence-based classification systems. These reforms have saved millions of taxpayer dollars without compromising institutional safety. Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who ushered in reforms leading to a 70 percent reduction in Maine's solitary confinement population in 2011, has said, "Over time, the more data we're pulling is showing that what we're doing now is safer than what we were doing before."