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Solitary Confinement in the U.S. Prison System- Inhumane and Ineffective

Solitary Confinement in the U.S. Prison System- Inhumane and Ineffective

By Sophie Ranen

As an intern at The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, I have had the opportunity to learn about a pressing racial justice issue: solitary confinement.

Currently, the United States holds at least 80,000 prisoners in isolation, more than any other country in the world. Prisoners in solitary confinement are held alone, or with another person, in a small cell for 22-24 hours a day and deprived of human contact, natural sunlight, and productive activities for months, years, or even decades. Isolation is used both as punishment for behavior in prison as well as gang management. For the former, prisoners receive a sentence for a specified time-period while prisoners with assumed gang affiliation often receive indefinite sentences. Additionally, solitary confinement is often used as punishment for non-violent infractions of prison discipline such as talking back, having too many postage stamps, wearing the wrong sweatshirt, or cheering too loudly for the Patriots during the Super Bowl.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Méndez, declared in 2011 that solitary confinement for periods over 15 days should be absolutely prohibited based on scientific evidence of irreversible psychological damage caused by isolation. This damage is extremely problematic for both those who enter the prison system with mental illness as well as those who do not. Solitary confinement has been proven to worsen, intensify, and induce psychological disorders and fundamentally alter brain structure and function.

In his speech at the Strategic Convening on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., M.S.P. describes the universal and predictable symptoms of individuals in solitary confinement. These symptoms include terrible headaches, trouble sleeping, anxiety and panic attacks, profound anger, dread, and paranoia. Prisoners in solitary confinement also become victims of cognitive and memory problems, perform ritualistic compulsive acts, and suffer from severe depression.

For individuals with pre-existing mental illnesses and those prone to mental illness, the effect of solitary confinement on their mental health is even more significant. Prisoners often experience psychotic episodes while in solitary confinement and others are placed in solitary confinement because their psychotic breakdowns are interpreted as “acting out.” Suicide is also a harrowing result of solitary: in California, 60-70% of successful suicides occur among the 5-6% of the population in conditions of solitary confinement.

Genesis states that “It is not good for a human to be alone” (2:18) and the Talmud, when speaking of a man who had outlived his study partners and wished to die, points out the necessity of companionship for human existence when it teaches, “Either companionship or death!” (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23a). These texts, along with the evidence of inhumane and degrading treatment of our fellow citizens, reveal that as Jews and members of the human community, we must take action to stop the use of solitary confinement and advocate for alternatives that provide an avenue for rehabilitation and therapeutic interventions.


Sophie Ranen is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania where she is majoring in Health and Societies with a concentration in Health Policy and Law. As a Machon Kaplan participant, Sophie is interning at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Published: 6/30/2015

Categories: Social Justice