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What is Solitary Confinement?

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Solitary confinement is a type of prison in which prisoners are kept apart from other inmates and any human contact for 22-24 hours per day, typically in a small cell. Although the law in the United States does not provide an exhaustive definition of solitary confinement, it’s widely understood to mean confinement in a cell for at least 22 hours each day with minimal or no interaction or meaningful human contact.

Many U.S. prisons use solitary confinement to punish prisoners or manage dangerous or difficult inmates, and it has been condemned as torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment when used for extended periods.

Recent years have seen a movement to reduce or abolish solitary confinement in the United States, particularly for children and those with mental illnesses. Many states have passed laws which limit or require greater transparency regarding this practice.

Pirson Wiki often receives questions regarding solitary confinement. This topic has generated much political controversy and there is evidence to support the claim that it causes permanent mental damage.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PDF), 55,000-62,500 individuals spent the past two weeks in solitary confinement at either federal or state prison facilities.

Correctional officers often place people in smaller cells than parking spots to maintain order and prevent gang violence. But is this practice doing more harm than good?

Mistie Vance is our guest blogger today. She is serving a 20 year sentence at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Missouri and has been imprisoned for more than 10 years, with no hope of parole until 2025.

Mistie gives her opinion on today’s blog post: What is Solitary Confinement? Tthe following topics in this post will be covered:

  • What is solitary confinement and why are inmates placed there?
  • What happens if an inmate is being investigated?
  • These are some of the most common reasons why inmates go to solitary.
    How does it feel like to be put away for so long?
  • Can prisoners be sent into solitary confinement?
  • Is it necessary to confine a person in such conditions?
  • What are the main reasons why solitary confinement has been abolished?

What is solitary confinement and why are inmates placed there?

Solitary confinement is the practice of taking an offender from prison and placing them in isolation lockdown 24/7 in small cells that are segregated from other camp members. Solitary cells typically accommodate one individual; some camps even have solitary cells with two bunks to address overcrowding issues. Solitary cells may not have windows but instead provide food trays through a slotted opening.

In solitary, you cannot access any personal items stored in general population cells such as extra clothes or TVs. You cannot leave your cell for work, school or recreation – the only time it can be taken out is for showering and occasional phone calls.

Solitary confinement can be used for a variety of reasons, not all of them related to behavioral problems. An inmate might be sent to solitary for investigation, protective custody, suicide watch or to protect themselves from an enemy.

After twelve years in two different women’s prisons, my only knowledge of solitary confinement comes from personal experience. While I cannot speak for men’s conditions as I have not visited any institutions nor spoken with staff members there, this gives me insight into their conditions.

Administrative segregation is the initial step to being placed in solitary in the prisons where I served. It occurs when an offender is placed there to protect, investigate or gain staff familiarity.

However, if you are found guilty of an offence, disciplinary segregation (dis-seg) will apply. This refers to a conduct violation.

What type of prison cell is used for solitary confinement?

Although the type of cell used for solitary confinement varies depending on where you reside, they all share some common features.

Solitary confinement cells are generally small and windowless, designed to restrict sensory stimulation. They often feature a metal door made of solid steel with an opening for communication, along with a slot to pass food items and other necessities. Solitary confinement cells may include beds, toilets, sinks and small tables as well.

Prison cells are typically kept darkened or artificially lit 24 hours a day. Prisoners are generally prohibited from having personal items or decorations inside their cells.

What happens if an inmate is being investigated?

Let’s now address being sent to solitary, or the hole, while we investigate. You could potentially be sent there if there are suspicions of introducing drugs into the institution or having improper relationships with staff members.

This is a lengthy process that may take months to complete. In desperate situations, offenders will often falsely accuse others in order to gain their release from prison as revenge or jealousy.
These are the most frequent reasons why inmates are sent to solitary.

Fighting, being caught in sexual situations with others, threats and creating disturbance are the most common reasons an offender is sent to solitary. These offenses usually result in a 30-day stay at the pokey.

When one party throws his hands in the air and his opponent does not, then they are both guilty of assault and sent back to prison with no violation. Many sexual misconduct offenses occur in prison because it is against prison rules to have any physical contact during confinement.

Last year, I tried something new – instead of telling her something offensive (jokingly of course!), I leant in as if to tell her something and instead licked her ears!

What’s it like to be down in the hole?

Let me briefly describe what it’s like inside the hole: You are handcuffed and taken to administrative segregation facility where you undergo strip-searching for contraband before being led away to a small cell with a sink/toilet unit and bunk with one or two beds.

You are not allowed to use soap, shampoo, toothpaste or toothbrushes during this program. Each week you will be provided two books which you might not otherwise have access to; if you read quickly, these may even end up being read more than once!

Three times per week, you are taken out of your cell and handcuffed. Most often this occurs between midnight and 3 a.m. With no clock in the hole, meals and medication are delivered at regular intervals regardless of who else you may have in the cell with or without you. After awhile, boredom sets in whether you share it with another person or are all by yourself.

Over my nearly thirteen-year imprisonment, I’ve been to the hole numerous times. You will feel exhausted from lack of exercise (or space for other activities if your cell is small) and loneliness that comes from being alone…

It can be difficult to fully appreciate the effect loneliness has on someone unless you have firsthand knowledge. The more isolated a person feels, the greater its effects.

After being away for some time, it can take some getting used to being back among society. The lack of stimulation during solitary time may lead to anxiety and overstimulation upon return. Socializing again may feel awkward and challenging after such a long break.

As your sleep patterns alter while in the hole, you may experience sleep disturbances. To adjust to life back in the real world after being in the hole, there are numerous strategies an individual must employ.

Can a prisoner be sent into solitary confinement?

Prisoners could only be sent to solitary if their mental health made them a danger to other inmates. Unfortunately, I have seen women spend lengthy periods behind bars for crimes like starting fires or escaping. In severe cases, an offender could end up spending up to one year in solitary confinement.

Some inmates opt to spend their time alone because they find it difficult to adjust to institutional life. Although they may request a short reprieve, violations often follow that ensure they remain behind bars the entirety of their sentence.

It is worth mentioning that supermax prisons are available for male inmates – these are for the most violent criminals. According to my understanding, each inmate is kept isolated during their entire sentence in these high security facilities.

Do people really need to be kept in seclusion?

Solitary confinement may be necessary for a variety of reasons. In order to guarantee safety and security, offenders may need to be separated from society in certain instances.

Do I believe inmates should be kept isolated as long as possible? No. Am I certain? Definitely. However, in certain circumstances, segregating an offender may be the best course of action.

Think of an inmate with severe mental health problems and violent hallucinations, who could potentially become motivated to commit more violent acts against other prisoners. The prison staff must ensure the general population remains protected until the inmate’s stability has been achieved.

Another example would be an inmate who is contemplating suicide or has attempted to harm themselves. To prevent future attempts at self-harm, it is essential to closely monitor these individuals.

I strongly oppose segregation as a disciplinary measure.

We often refer to the Department of Corrections as a prison system. Its goal is to educate inmates and hold them accountable for their decisions, but some would argue that isolating someone for extended periods can have unintended consequences such as excessive stress and other undesirable behaviors.

What are the primary reasons why solitary confinement has been prohibited?

I do not advocate for the complete banning of solitary confinement. While it is necessary to segregate certain individuals for a reasonable (but not too long) period of time, there are numerous reasons why it should not be permitted.

I feel compelled to provide my opinion in response to this question. The answer may differ depending on who asks it.

Some argue that offenders should be allowed to spend weeks, months, or even years in isolation in a cell – away from everyone and everything. Others hold that once we have been convicted of our crime it becomes obvious that any punishment we receive is justified.

My perspective of the world is unique, having lived with women who had criminal backgrounds and ended up behind bars. One of many tragic stories that I have heard throughout my years in prison has been one of those stories: you don’t know what to do if you find yourself in an overwhelming circumstance. That has taught me invaluable lessons.

Solitary confinement is inhumane at its core and should be outlawed. Humanity possesses a part of ourselves which craves relationships with others; banging this practice would serve to ensure these rights for all people.

No matter your personality, you need to connect with others – whether you’re an introverted loner or a social butterfly. Studies have demonstrated that infants who lack affection and social interaction are at increased risk for developing severe disabilities.

We are all connected in some way or another – more than just individual parts floating in a sea, but something much deeper that runs at our core. If we are kept apart from humanity, part of us will die slowly and painfully. Animals should never be kept in small enclosures for extended periods with no respite – this can be considered inhumane treatment.

Prison inmates who spend extended periods without mental or physical stimulation can experience a change in their psychological makeup. While I’m no expert on the matter and cannot provide definitive proof, I have personally witnessed it and believe it to be true.

We are resilient creatures that adapt to any situation. What adaptations would you expect someone to make if they were completely isolated, sensory deprived and lacking mental stimulation for an extended period? Exercise and loss of support systems? How about extreme limits on self expression or decision-making options? Will they still be the same person after such treatment? These questions should be taken into consideration when implementing disciplinary segregation policies.

This will hopefully give you an understanding of solitary confinement, as well as provide information that can help shape your opinion on whether segregation in prison is necessary and humane.

It is essential for someone you care about to feel loved and supported during extended times of isolation. Stay in touch with your loved ones through emails and letters; this will give them something positive to look forward to, provide mental and emotional stimulation, as well as helping preserve some of their humanity.

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