This article from the Dart Society examines the impact it has on prisoners.
Having spent a lot of time in solitary confinement, the longest being a year, I can state that for prisoners who have access to reading material it can function—as it did for me—as a somewhat scholar/monk existence, which can be very beneficial, again, as it was for me; but for those without access to reading material nor the wherewithal to deeply delve into it, it surely could be imperiling.
Most important, also applying to me at the time for escape and carrying a knife, prisoners in solitary deserve to be there, as the guards note in the last paragraph of the excerpt I’ve posted.
“A few weeks ago, on the fifteenth anniversary of his first day in prison, Osiel Rodriguez set about cleaning the 87 square feet he inhabits at ADX, a federal mass isolation facility in Colorado.
“I got it in my head to destroy all my photographs,” he writes in a letter to me. “I spent some five hours ripping each one to pieces. No one was safe. I did not save one of my mother, father, sisters. Who are those people anyway?”
“Such is the logic of the gray box, of sitting year after year in solitude.
“Whether Rodriguez had psychological problems when he robbed a bank, burglarized a pawn shop and stole some guns at age 22, or whether mental illness set in during the eight years he has spent in seclusion since trying to walk out of a federal penitentiary in Florida– it’s academic. What’s true now is that he’s sick, literally, of being alone, as are scores of other prisoners in extreme isolation.
“Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades. What this means, generally, is 23 hours a day in a cell the size of two queen-sized mattresses, with a single hour in an exercise cage, also alone. Some prisoners aren’t allowed visits or phone calls. Some have no TV or radio. Some never lay eyes on each other. And some go years without fresh air or sunlight.
“Solitary is a place where the slightest details can mean the world. Things like whether you can see a patch of grass or only sky outside your window – if you’re lucky enough to have a window. Or whether the guy who occupies cells before you in rotation has a habit of smearing feces on the wall. Are the lights on 24/7? Is there a clock or calendar to mark time? If you scream, could anyone hear you?
“In the warp of time and space where Rodriguez lives, the system not only has stripped him of any real human contact, but also made it unbearable to be reminded of a reality that has become all too unreal. It’s ripping him apart.
“Looking at photos of the free world caused me so much pain that I just couldn’t do it any more,” writes Rodriguez, 36. “Time and these conditions are breaking me down.”
“This is what our prisons are doing to people in the name of safety. This is how deeply we’re burying them.
“I got my first letter from solitary in 2008 while working as a newspaper columnist in Colorado. Mark Jordan — then at ADX on convictions for bank robbery and a prison murder – wrote asking me to cover a trial in which he’d be arguing for access to reading materials that seemed a reasonable way to cope inside a concrete box. The Federal Bureau of Prisons had banned, for instance, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Anaïs Nin’s books, which Jordan had already ordered. Officers in the mailroom wouldn’t pass along his issues of The New Yorker, either, because some of the cartoons depict nude figures.
“Intrigued, I went to hear Jordan represent himself in federal court by a live video feed from prison. Though he was shackled as he made his case, his arguments were as skilled as those of the most seasoned trial attorneys I had seen. He lost.
“Solitary confinement slipped from my mind after I covered Jordan’s case and moved on to my next deadline. But the subject became a preoccupation months later while I was hospitalized for septic pneumonia, with an “ISOLATION” sign outside my door. Partly it was the stale air in my hospital room and the view of a brick wall out my window. Partly it was the anxiety of losing my autonomy and voice. I’d lie there pressing a buzzer to get a glass of water or to have my tubes unhooked so I could get out of bed, and nobody would answer. I’d buzz and buzz again, complaining bitterly once nurses finally showed up. I’d see them roll their eyes and hear them dissing me in the hallway. Being sick wasn’t as bad as being stuck. I remember thinking about Jordan and wondering how people who were imprisoned in solitary were able to survive it. It occurred to me then that isolation – the non-medical, punitive, indefinite kind – could crack you in about a week. Powerlessness is its own centrifugal force.
“Plenty of corrections officers might tell you that offenders doing time in solitary don’t deserve the roofs over their heads or the meals shoved through their food slots. To be sure, many of these prisoners have done heinous, unforgivable things for which we lock them up tightly. Just how tightly is no small question. Yet, as a matter of public policy, the question hardly comes up. Compared to how much we as a nation have debated capital punishment, a sentence served by a small fraction of the incarcerated, we barely discuss how severely we’re willing to punish nearly everyone else.”