Today, December 10th, 2013, is Human Rights Day. On this day, there are tens of thousands of individuals across the United States locked up in tiny, windowless concrete cages in a state of total isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The most human contact these individuals will receive is when their prison guards slip a tray of food through a small slot in the steel door to their cell; the only time they will touch another person is when the guards shackle them, hands and feet, and lead them to a “recreation room”, where they will pace the concrete floor, alone, for an hour, before being led back to their cage.
Half of all prison suicides will be committed by prisoners held in isolation. The psychological damage is crippling. Imagine time morphing into something that is being done to you, as opposed to something you do things with. It is a slow, devastating torture. Many people who have been subjected to solitary confinement have told me the same thing: they would much rather be physically tortured than endure isolation ever again.
If you think that solitary confinement isn’t torture, try this little experiment: walk into your closet. Turn on a fluorescent light. Now, lock the door and stay there for ten years. You cannot freely read or write, you cannot speak to or touch anyone, you cannot exercise or listen to music. You will not be treated like a human, and soon, you will start to feel like you are not human.
Charles Dickens was appalled by our use of solitary confinement in prisons. He wrote:
“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
Dickens wrote these words in 1842. It is almost 2014. Until we end the incredibly inhumane use of solitary in our criminal justice system, we cannot masquerade as a society that cares about human rights.