We as a nation are guilty of the most horrific treatment of prisoners in the civilized world. In March, 400 prisoners in California’s Security Housing Units, as well as a number of prisoners’ rights organizations, petitioned the United Nations asking for help. Since then, the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who have each spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement . A class-action suit in Arizona challenges inadequate medical and mental health care that subjects prisoners to injury, amputation, disfigurement and death — especially in prolonged solitary confinement.
Supermax detention is the harshest weapon in the U.S. punitive armory. Once, solitary confinement affected few prisoners for relatively short periods. Today, most prisoners can expect to face solitary, for longer periods and under conditions that make old-time solitary seem almost attractive. ...
We citizens are proud of our history. We are a nation of laws. But what kind of laws? Laws that permit solitary confinement, with cell doors, unit doors and shower doors operated remotely from a control center, with severely limited and often abusive physical contact. Has society’s current attention to the death penalty allowed us to forget the gradual destruction of mind and loss of personal dignity in solitary confinement, including such symptoms as hallucinations, paranoia and delusions?
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham came to believe that solitude was “torture in effect.” Other 19th-century observers, including Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville, used images of premature burial, the tomb and the shroud to represent the death-in-life of solitary confinement. Some 25,000 inmates are languishing in long-term isolation in America’s supermax prisons, with as many as 80,000 more in solitary confinement in other facilities.