If we still believe in the United States that the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate both mind and body — should we ever be putting people in solitary confinement for years on end?  Should an entire prison term ever consist of 23-hour a day lockdown with one man in a single cell?

Atul Gawande argues in the March 30, 2009 edition of the New Yorker that we are all social animals and to remove us from each other only makes us less human and more animalistic when it comes to the benefits of proper incarceration:

Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that [researcher] Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.

As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can’t handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. “And those who have adapted,” Haney writes, “are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting.”

Most of us in the USA believe we need to separate the worst of us from the awful of us — even in prison — and solitary confinement is just the remedy to keep us safer and to keep down the violence against staff and other prisoners.

However, history and research prove the opposite is true:

Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness–a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

Where did we get the notion that locking people up and tossing away the key was the best way to reform the incorrigible?

Or have we really given up on the idea of creating a better person through incarceration and we only now care about dolling out a rolling punishment of isolation that leads to broken minds and unbending criminals that, more often than not, are released back into society?

Perhaps we should take an example from the UK and how they were brave enough to reform their idea of what it means to incarcerate the whole person:

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

We can’t continue to build prisons.  We can’t afford to keep up our current rate of incarceration in the United States. 

We need to find a way to rehabilitate the entire prison system to create a society that wants the betterment of everyone — even the convicted and the cruel — or we serve to stand the same fate as the isolated:  Irrational, predatory, vengeful and inhuman.

We protect our best social interests by curing the criminal heart — not by imitating it in the propagation of an outdated ideal of punishing the human spirit to force the body to obey.


  1. I would think that treating people like people would ultimately get them to be better people.

  2. I would think so, too, Gordon, but people in the USA want the ultimate punishment for prisoners. They want flesh with blood. They want payback. Our prison system is now about revenge and suffering rather than rehabilitation and preparation for returning to society.

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