The Form of Social Death Throught Solitary Confinement Among Prisoners

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As time goes on, it is easy to grasp the idea of being self-isolated during the COVID-19 outbreak for indefinite periods of time, bored and losing our minds missing the freedom we once had. It is hard to imagine being alone with no one or with anything in an eighty square foot room for years or even a lifetime. This is the reality 100,000 prisoners face today in solitary confinement. There are two terms to label offenders in solitary confinement, civil death, or social death offenders:

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  • Civil death offenders are prisoners who are considered legally dead in the law and have their basic rights taken away. 
  • Social death offenders are when a person is excluded and eliminated from everyone else becoming dead to society. 

After spending years alone in confinement, psychological, social, and basic identity is threatened. Taking a closer look into solitary confinement the main nodus is the psychological damage, human rights violation, and many prisoners from solitary confinement let back in the world increase more harm to society and themselves. According to The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Experience of happiness is so dependent on external stimuli”, that prisoners in isolation should receive outside help and socialization rather than being worsened from solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is an increasing issue in today’s world and as it is further investigated, it is proven to be used more frequently and irrationally. The stimulus helps support the argument that solitary confinement should be prevented due to how important mental health and well-being are. Such evaluation brings up the question: To what extent does long-term solitary confinement threaten American adult prisoners’ well-being? Overall, long-term solitary confinement should be limited among American adult prisoners because it impacts violation of human rights, the onset of psychological damage, and increases the feeling of social death and harm in society.

The United States is truly fortunate to have such privileged human rights for their people. By definition, human rights are believed to be justifiable to every person. The US prison administration has described solitary confinement as a “grave problem” and requested it should be used less frequently because it violates basic human rights. According to Craig Haney, an American Psychology Association (APA) member, told the Senate, “The conditions of confinement are far too severe to serve any kind of penological purpose”. This is elaborating on the fact that prisoners in solitary confinement do not gain anything while in isolation, which makes the system faulty. The length of time a prisoner serves in isolation varies and depends on the purpose of why they are put in there. People can spend a short amount of time in isolation such as hours or days, while others have not just been in there for years, but decades.

The prolonged uncertainty of confinement violates the international human rights law against “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” . Most of the people held in solitary confinement were in gangs and assumed to be dangerous. According to Elli Marcus, a graduate as a Levy Scholar from Pennsylvania Law School explains, solitary confinement should be used only if the placement is done by “meaningful reviews” rather than assumptions.

On the contrary, it is argued that solitary confinement allows the prisoners to serve their sentences and bring justice for the victims. Crimes are not supported by the law and other nations’ therefore solitary confinement is seen as a way for sentences to be served precisely in a disciplinary way. While many see this argument as flawed, there are several steps that have been put in place assessing a violation for a prisoner to be sent to confinement. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is the protection of prisoners stating that no one will be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”, referring to fair procedures in court. The court must determine whether the violation impairs the liberty protection interest from the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. If the government sees a reason for the prisoner to be in confinement, they must go through the three-part Mathews v. Eldridge balancing test. This test allows the lower courts to decide whether the person being evaluated has gotten fair treatment during the administrative proceeding regarding punishment. Despite the new “meaningful reviews” for prisoners, many state laws have not implemented it because of costly efforts. According to Michael McCarthy, a graduate from the University of Liverpool explains that under the new terms from the US prison administration, prisoners who were affiliated with gangs and other crimes will no longer be sent to solitary confinement without being found guilty in committing a serious violation in prison.

From a psychological perspective, the practices of confinement are costly and ineffective, in that “it does not achieve its intended objectives and may even worsen the problems it’s designed to solve”. Many people in solitary confinement have developed psychological disorders. There have been many recent studies on long-term solitary confinement and psychological correlations. According to Dr. Grassian, an NYU graduate and Psychiatrist concluded solitary confinement causes severe psychiatric harm. This harm includes a syndrome that has been reported by many clinics in multiple settings, which all have common features of restriction. The syndrome is known as Acute Organic Brain Syndrome (AOBS), or delirium. This delirium is incredibly unique, and the symptoms are different from any other psychiatric illness. AOBS causes confusion, random violent impulses, and perceptual disturbances which are usually found in early schizophrenia. Curtis Jenkins, who has a master’s degree in Science for Criminal Justice, has done similar research as Dr. Grassian concerning solitary confinement. Jenkins explains prisoners react differently to solitary confinement depending on their mental state and perception. Some psychologists suggest the harmful effects are related to how long you are in solitary confinement and the condition. Whereas others believe it depends on how different responses are expressed by everyone, and that others can cope better. Through Dr. Grassian’s research, he evaluated prisoners and discovered after numerous interviews, many of the responses from the inmates were, “Solitary doesn’t bother me” or “Some of the guys can’t take it–not me.” These statements came from prisoners in long-term confinement and show that the psychiatric damage varies on each individual. Both Jenkins and Dr. Grassian can agree that prisoners’ mental health in solitary confinement depends on how they handle their emotions and it creates psychological distortions.

A suitable example from Utilitarianism is the chapter, “On Virtue and Happiness” published by John Stuart Mill. The article suggests “a psychological fact that the possibility of its being, to the individual, a good in itself… that the mind is not in the right state, not in state comfortable to Utility, not in the state most conducive to general happiness”. One of the three principles of utilitarianism is that everyone’s happiness counts equally. The brain knows when it is not in the right mental state and cannot promote the state of happiness leading to mental illness. Without getting proper help from trained professionals, well-being will not be reached, and the mind will continue to suffer. Similar to “On Virtue and Happiness,” the Dalai Lama explains in The Book of Joy an important way to treat mental illness. His holiness suggests, “This is the value of compassion, of having compassionate feelings for others. Even, you see, ten minutes or thirty minutes of meditation on compassion, on kindness for others, and you will see its effects all day”. The Dalai Lama’s advice on how to handle mental stability shows that you need people’s interaction and help from others in order to maintain psychologically well. If people in isolation could see their family, this could help affect their day positively as the Dalai Lama explained.

After all, many consider solitary confinement as improving the inmate’s character while serving their time. According to Dr. Shalev, the historical rationale for the use of isolation was that it was believed if the prisoner was left alone with their conscience and a Bible, they would look within their inner self and follow the laws back into society. However, this method has been proven faulty because solitary confinement almost often results in worsening pre-existing mental conditions in prisoners and develops social death. California agreed to end long-term solitary confinement in most of its prisons. There was a lawsuit at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, filed on behalf of prisoners in isolation. The lawsuit states that prisoners usually suffer from psychological damage due to being held for so many years, even if they did not commit a serious crime. They now only can hold prisoners up to 14 days. Although limiting the amount of time in confinement is ideal, one limitation is that the laws take time to implement. By shortening the confinement of prisoners to a maximum of 14 days, it will be effective because it will punish the prisoners to an extent. This is the most viable solution because there is little evidence that short-term confinement has a lasting effect on inmates psychologically.

Conceptualize being held in solitary confinement for decades, and one day after serving the time, getting let out back to society. When prisoners are released back into society, they usually face much anxiety and paranoia which can do more harm. Prisoners who are in isolation for decades whether it is 30 or 40 years are extreme, but it is possible and still happening. Former inmate, Anthony Graves, spent eighteen years on death row and ten years in confinement for a murder he did not commit. Graves was released in 2010 and still feels the effects of the time he spent in solitary confinement. Graves explained, “I haven’t had a good night sleep since my release, I have mood swings that cause emotional breakdowns.” Haney explains the long-term effects such as the ones Graves are experiencing is one of the profoundly serious psychological consequences that render prisoners to be incapable of living anywhere else. Frank De Palma was a former prisoner who told his experience after serving 22 years and 36 days in confinement. Palma was interviewed by Christie Thompson, a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Palma was a young gang member who arrived at the prison after attempting second-degree murder. He was put into solitary confinement after trying to strangle a guard. Palma started to experience difficulties when he would leave his cell to go outside and exercise alone. He would feel the air around him pressuring a force and could not “breathe.” Within minutes of coming back inside his cell, he was okay again. On March 11, 2014, a psychologist came to his cell and told him he would be getting out of prison soon. Palma begged them not to make him come out of his cell, but he was taken to a psych ward for ten months and got out on December 21, 2018. Palma is still afraid of people and feels disconnected, as he would lock himself in his bathroom with the lights off to relax.

Alternatively, this issue could be viewed as prison guards providing a discipline punishment for negative behaviors. Most likely, inmates do not like the idea of being isolated without human interaction for weeks or decades and thus, the act of discipline would be enforced. Although it is granted that discipline from solitary confinement could possibly refine prisoners to behave better, the outcome of emotional consequences is far too severe. Though prisoners after serving their time in isolation are sent to psych wards to ease back into society, the damage of solitary confinement is too drastic to overcome. Rather than locking up and cutting the prisoner off from society, a better short-term way to discipline the inmate is by having trained professionals evaluate and treat them with short-term punishments). Despite if the prisoners were to receive help from professionals, a limit is that the costly effect makes it hard to get psychologists for everyone. Nonetheless, this short-term solution is a profound way to implement the order in prisons without risking any type of critical damage among the prisoners.

Having the experience of the COVID-19 outbreak, being isolated with little socialization is torture. Research has proven the negative effects solitary has on American adult prisoners. Prisoners in isolation are put in there merely based on assumption rather than an actual cause. By having the “meaningful reviews” it will allow more justification for the prisoner and the criminal justice system. The biggest problem today in solitary confinement is all the mental illness it is creating within prisoners who have or develop it during their time. Moreover, it develops the level of social death, the inner feeling pf being totaly social isolated. If the time in isolation is limited to a maximum of 14 days, it will serve purpose and discipline that long-term confinement does not achieve and when a prisoner is let out to society again, they will transition more appropriately. Therefore, long-term solitary confinement should be limited among the American adult prisoners because it impacts violations of human rights, the onset of psychological damage, and increases the feeling of social death and harm in society.  

07 July 2022

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