Solitary Confinement: When Solitude is no Longer a Virtue

Solitary Confinement: When Solitude is no Longer a Virtue

Last week there was a major Congressional briefing on the effects of long-term solitary confinement. Experts demonstrated that prolonged, isolated confinement causes serious psychological damage. Yet most courts and legislatures have been unwilling to declare this harsh practice unconstitutional or to change this nation’s current unethical practice. Can anyone hear the cries from the "hole?"

Many legal scholars understand confinement that is longer than a few weeks or is continued indefinitely to be psychological torture and cruel and unusual punishment since the lack of human contact and sensory deprivation can deeply harm one’s mental state and lead to mental illness or death.

Yet today there are at least 20,000 inmates living in isolated conditions in U.S. supermax prisons, and many of these extremely harsh conditions are also in clear violation of international human rights law. How can this be?

A few hundred years ago, religious advocates of solitary confinement argued that it provides the opportunity for one to reflect on one’s sins and that this would lead to reformation. Today, we know that being locked, isolated from one and all, in a cell 48 square feet or smaller will not lead to the positive transformation of the soul that some hope for.

There is currently no empirical evidence that the "hotbox" reduces violence or gang presence in prison or that it increases public safety. In fact, a 1997 study in Washington actually found the opposite that solitary confinement was correlated with higher recidivism.

While there are some specific cases where some limited isolation of a criminal is needed for the basic protection of others, the practice is used in many cases beyond this. At the least, we can all support isolation time limits, better data collection, more mental health screening and care, and reductions in overcrowding and overall incarceration rates. Inmates should be informed how long their solitary confinement will be and what they can do to increase or decrease that time. There can be a reduction of isolation by using out-of-cell time and a system of progressive housing when transferring prisoners out of solitary confinement and back into the general population.

There is hope for change. Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, New York and Vermont have begun to reform their solitary practices. Other states must follow their lead to ensure that prisoners are treated more humanely. Congress is discussing the future of this practice – now is the time to make our voices heard.

As Jews, we can be motivated by one of the first statements about the human condition that is made in the Torah, when God said, "lo tov heyot ha’adam levado" – one should never live alone! The Talmud actually compares an isolated lack of social discourse to death: "Choose either a learning partner or death." Partnership and companionship are part and parcel of a good life.

Only one character in the Torah (he who is stricken with skin blemishes) must live in isolation. This was a particular spiritual remedy for a spiritual ailment used in Biblical times that clearly would have no place in today’s system of punitive justice. But even here, it is not in a small dark space, but rather just beyond the settlement limits, set aside as a space for reflection.

Some of the great Jewish sages were victims of solitary confinement. Seventy rabbinic sages, in the 2nd century, were placed in solitary confinement to translate the Torah into Greek. Most rabbinic teachings portray the result of this torture to have been destructive to Torah. The unified interpretation of the Torah in another language that emerged might demonstrate how confinement destroys the potential for human uniqueness and personal nuance.

While we may embrace solitude as a spiritual practice – and only for the very few, at that! – extreme forced isolation is not an acceptable Jewish model of punishment. As Congress currently debates the future of this practice in America, the Jewish community must continue to be at the forefront of the struggle for human rights.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.  


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