“When I walked out of Angola, I didn’t realize how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me,” said Benjamin Sklar, a prisoner held in solitary confinement for 29 years.

The isolated torture of one’s psyche is not even remotely an acceptable or humane punishment, yet it is still used consistently behind the walls of our prison system. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, stated in The New Yorker, “Human beings are social creatures … to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

During a lecture on the United Nations rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, a visiting law professor at American University, addressed the duties of assessing international and domestic prisons based on guidelines set by the UN according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He encountered friction when trying to receive consent to inspect prisons in politically closed countries, such as Russia and Korea. However, what perhaps is more surprising was the refusal of U.S. federal and state penitentiary systems to allow him to inspect their facilities. With only a handful of prisons allowing him full access to inspection, the UN must refuse to give any official reports on prison conditions in a given country.

The mandates set by the UN on prisoner treatment are a check and balance system to hold governments accountable, however the duration and severity of solitary confinement creates widespread disagreement on the definition of torture. Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine columnist, presents a piece on the government’s use of solitary confinement with the parallel effects of brutal torture on inmates. The piece in New York Magazine translated the events of a penitentiary-wide hunger strike to alleviate the harsh conditions of confinement in one of California’s highest security prisons. The Pelican Bay Security Housing inmates are isolated in concrete cells for the entirety of the day with only one hour to exercise in a personal cage outside. Wells’ research led him to look more closely into the account of a gang member placed at Pelican Bay for serious crimes. Although the inmate had previously led a life that many people would consider dangerous and against social norms, he described solitary confinement as almost 25 years of “continuous torture.”

From a historical perspective, the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War demonstrated a framework that was drafted and signed by the U.S. as well as 95 international governments. It reflected upon universal moral views for the treatment of foreign prisoners. In Article 3 of the Convention, it is stated that no prisoners shall endure “outrages upon personal dignity,” as well as Article 30 which addresses isolation wards solely as outlets to protect patient prisoners and garner healing rather than mental wear.

In countering against the abolition of solitary confinement, author Robert Rogers argues that prisoner isolation can help protect younger inmates from the influences of career criminals. The report examines the positive effects of keeping extremely volatile prisoners away from other inmates, noting a decrease in riots as well as a less significant presence of prison gangs and violence. This also affects the young prisoners released from jail; once back in society, they could be swayed to carry on crimes because of their time spent with career criminals.

In reports by correctional researcher Paige Ferguson from prisons in Washington state , the state facilities used an experimental program on those same volatile inmates with long-term mental health counseling. Attention to mental health stimulated positive effects in prisoners, thus resulting in a smaller number of participants returning to isolation for behavioral correction. Ferguson also points to the effects of solitary confinement on society once prisoners are released. Without consistent socialization, ex-convicts are prone to revert back to crime when faced with the task of re-assimilating to normal society. Programs of extensive mental health aid and counseling would be increasingly beneficial substitutes to the harsh implications of solitary confinement.

Beyond Ferguson’s findings, I feel our country would be able to bypass the abusive policies of prisoner segregation if there was better mediation on what crimes warranted prison time. If perpetrators of petty crimes were sentenced to more public works and community service instead of jail time, it would allow for a larger budget for mental health programs within prisons and, at the same time, benefit communities with the work of less threatening offenders.

While solitary confinement may work as a means of prisoner protection, its overuse has become a mentally damaging form of torture in the U.S. prison system. Segregating problematic members of society needs to be disassociated as an acceptable practice. Instead, the correctional facilities should focus on improving the mental health and well-being of inmates.

Kirk Acharya is an LSA junior.

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