Solitary confinement: What the Shawshank Redemption doesn’t teach us

Solitary confinement: What the Shawshank Redemption doesn’t teach us

By Adrian Alvarez, Goldberg-Robb Attorney

“He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1842 after visiting prisoners living for years in solitary confinement at a penitentiary outside Philadelphia. Back then, solitary confinement was considered a progressive policy. It began in the United States in the late 1820s as an alternative to corporal punishment; reformers hoped it would promote reflection and repentance. A little over ten years later, however, it was clear to Dickens that the practice was a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain” that was “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

We now know that Dickens was right. Many studies have documented the irreparable psychological harm that prolonged solitary can cause. Some have even called it torture. Yet despite our growing understanding of solitary’s negative effects, many people’s only knowledge of the practice may be limited to what they see in the movies. Movies, however, are poor educators on the reality that solitary confinement is closer to torture than a temporary, rarely used mechanism to keep order in prisons.

I recently spoke to a highly educated person who told me that the only thing he knew about solitary confinement was what he had seen on The Shawshank Redemption (1994). I worry that if Hollywood is the public’s largest source of information on solitary confinement, human rights activists are going to have a difficult time convincing legislatures and other policy makers to curtail its use. And as I explain below, there are many reasons why prisons should move away from this practice.

A few misconceptions about solitary found in the movies are that solitary confinement is only for a short, discrete period of time, that solitary is not that bad, and that solitary is reserved for those with serious disciplinary infractions. Some of these misconceptions play out in The Shawshank Redemption. There, protagonist Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins) spends two weeks in solitary after playing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro on the prison’s loudspeaker. The episode provokes a whimsical discussion among the inmates that diminishes the severity of the punishment:

HEYWOOD: Couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams?

ANDY: They broke the door down before I could take requests.

FLOYD: Was it worth two weeks in the hole?

ANDY: Easiest time I ever did.

HEYWOOD: Shit. No such thing as easy time in the hole. A week seems like a year.

ANDY: I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all.

RED: Oh, they let you tote that record player down there, huh? I could’a swore they confiscated that stuff.

ANDY: (taps his heart, his head) The music was here . . . and here. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it.

As the movie illustrates, some may come away from the film believing that individuals are only placed in solitary for short, discrete periods of time. However, with the creation of Supermax prisons, more prisoners are getting put in solitary for very long periods of time, sometimes even for multiple years. Among the thousands of California prisoners going into their second week of a hunger strike to protest conditions in solitary confinement are inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison who have been confined for over ten years — some even as long as twenty-eight years. And on July 12, 2013, four members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on behalf of Herman Wallace, a prisoner in Louisiana who until Monday had been in solitary confinement for forty-one years.

Notwithstanding what you might see in Hollywood, there’s no such thing as easy time in the hole. Psychological research has shown that even two weeks in solitary confinement can cause irreversible psychological harm. In 2011, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez issued an interim report stating that under some circumstances, solitary confinement can even amount to torture because of the severe mental and physical pain or suffering it can cause.

A recent article on Wired.com described some of the psychological trauma that inmates in solitary confinement face:  

“Consistent patterns emerge, centering around . . . extreme anxiety, anger, hallucinations, mood swings and flatness, and loss of impulse control. In the absence of stimuli, prisoners may also become hypersensitive to any stimuli at all. Often they obsess uncontrollably, as if their minds didn’t belong to them, over tiny details or personal grievances. Panic attacks are routine, as is depression and loss of memory and cognitive function.”

Because of the toll solitary confinement takes on a person’s psyche, inmates in solitary commit suicide in greater numbers than those in the regular prison population, and are more likely to engage in self harm.

Finally, another misconception about solitary confinement from Hollywood is that the practice is reserved only for inmates who commit serious disciplinary infractions. But there are multiple reasons why prisoners get put in solitary, not all of them having to do with discipline. For instance, LGBT prisoners and many juveniles held in adult facilities are sometimes placed in a kind of solitary confinement known as protective custody “for their own protection.” Yet research has shown that inmates in protective custody experience much of the same psychological trauma and distress that inmates isolated for disciplinary reasons face.

Moreover, prisoners with serious mental illness are often put in solitary for acting out as a manifestation of their mental illness. Studies have shown that solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illness for those who are already ill. Therefore, it’s almost impossible for many of these prisoners to work their way out of solitary with good behavior.

To be sure, people aren’t watching movies to learn about social justice. They see movies to be entertained. But we’ve learned that depictions of torture in the popular media influence people’s beliefs and actions. It’s now well known that some American interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan were using interrogation techniques that they had learned from television shows like “24.”

I hope that, in fifty years, we look back at the present day and ask ourselves collectively, “How could we have tolerated such cruelty?” The only way we’ll ever get there, however, is if we don’t leave it to Hollywood to educate us about serious issues of human rights. Solitary confinement is one of those serious issues we need to do something about. And quickly. 

Photo by BohemianDollsCC by 2.0

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