Solitary Nation | Reflections

Posted on April 23, 2014




Solitary confinement began in the United States in the 1800s as a progressive experiment to see if isolation would reform criminals. It was soon largely abandoned because prisoners didn’t reform, they lost their minds.

But in the 1980s, solitary re-emerged as a way to stamp out prison violence. The United States now has more inmates in isolation than any other Western country.

Programs like this are to be lauded as much as they are infuriatingly painful to watch. Frontline does a commendable job, as always, bringing these issues to the public in an honest and visceral way.

My first emotional response is, “Dear God, please, let it stop.” There is a reason why “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” is a welcome exhortation, to ensure that the punishment is limited to the same level of harm as the infraction. Watching inmates in solitary confinement, however, causes one to conclude that this kind of punishment is equal, in many ways, not to their crime, but to torture. Solitary seems more to be exacerbating the very problems that puts someone there in the first place, and creates new problems more nefarious. Furthering this punishment only creates a violent, never-ending systemic cycle of de-humanization.

While I have several thoughts that ruminate, I recognize that I have not spent time working in these facilities, which means I am ignorant and uneducated to all of the complicated nuances of this system. So, I’ll do my best to elucidate a few ideas that I believe are relevant and may be helpful, while fully recognizing my place as an “outsider.”


Monsters! This is what they create in here, monsters. And then they drop you into society and tell you go ahead be a good boy. Can’t conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal. – Ronald Joncas, Inmate


1. Accept solitary confinement for the inhumane treatment it is, and consider carefully its effects on any one, criminal or not. Limit “seg” for minimal punishment, and never see this as “criminal justice” or “rehabilitation.” It’s just an infliction of harsh punishment.

2. Empathize with inmates and treat them the way you would want to be treated, with the same dignity, respect, honesty, and transparency that humanizes us, regardless of their crime. This ensures that we exemplify the behaviors we want in our society  (a fundamental principle and rule for all social science), and it ensures we do not strip inmates or ourselves of whatever dignity may be left, for ourselves, for them, and for society.

3. Recognize the psychological shift that happens in officers who work in the criminal justice system in how criminals are perceived. This is where an outsider’s perspective may be of great value. Being on the “inside,” can cloud one’s thinking and perceptions, and further the deprecation.

4. Do not reason with insanity. The officers’ interactions with the inmates at times resembled some sort of attempt at rationale discourse. Given that solitary dehumanizes, this does not seem to be a fruitful enterprise. Often times, because the inmates are intelligent human beings, they see more clearly the inconsistencies and weaknesses in what is communicated.

5. Do not practice insanity. Punishing someone with solitary confinement for a behavior that solitary confinement created, is insane.

6. Tell more of the story. The thing that was grossly missing from this production are the stories behind each inmate and the journey for how they got there. We got a glimpse in one of the inmate’s sharing about his father committing suicide. It seems imperative, to me, that this is crucial information, and critical context for how to rehabilitate and punish particular people. There’s always more to the story than the end results of disruptive and dangerous behavior. I want to hear about their hurts and pains, and I want to connect the system with that story.

7. Can you offer any hope? Perhaps solitary is not the corrective. Perhaps hope is.

The use of segregation has its place when you have real dangerous prisoners, but from my perspective, it is overused probably throughout the United States. It’s really dangerous, OK? If I have somebody that comes in with a five-year commitment you can have them do their whole time in segregation, but I don’t want him living next to me when you release him. The normal person, they’re going to be thinking, if you punish them, you’re going make them better. And the reality is the exact opposite happens. – Rodney Bouffard, Warden, Maine State Prison

It seems to me that when it comes to criminal justice, we frequently take wounded people — people who have been deeply hurt by events or people in their lives — and hurt then further after they have simply behaved in accordance with their life’s experience and understanding. How is this rehabilitation? How is this helping? How is this “justice?”

Posted in: Justice