Is Solitary Confinement “Cruel and Unusual”

After reading Atul Gawande’s essay in the New Yorker, I’m convinced that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual. It wrecks the psyche of many prisoners and leaves them unfit to ever fully reintegrate with society:

One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as
people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them
unfit for social interaction
. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an
in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it.
After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an
occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the
tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found
himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble
following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them
himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic
attack.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of
California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred
randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and
noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete
isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate
behavior of any kind–to organize their own lives around activity and
purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair
often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop
behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety
per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,”
compared with just three per cent of prisoners in the general
population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the
totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for
happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with
revenge fantasies.

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