SOLITARY: THE INSIDE STORY OF SUPERMAX ISOLATION AND HOW WE CAN ABOLISH IT by Terry Allen Kupers

Terry Kupers is a social psychiatrist who has given a lot of expert testimony during court cases specifically about solitary confinement and mental illness. His stance is pretty simple–that isolation is inhumane and should be abolished.

Right now, over 100,000 people are in solitary confinement (and that doesn’t count facilities on lock-down, during which everyone is in isolation). Solitary confinement has been used in the U.S. ever since the first jail was built, but it became criminally overused during the War on Drugs. Jails and prisons had become overcrowded out of nowhere, and the logic was to put “the worst of the worse” away from the rest of the population. It’s not very logical, though, as not one single study shows any positive outcomes from solitary confinement. Zero. Those deemed “the worst” often have mental health issues that are only exasperated in solitary, and, if a person didn’t have mental health issues before, they soon get them from being in there.

Part of the problem with isolation is that it’s supposed to be the ultimate punishment–the end of the line. But what if people continue act up in isolation? COs then go to arbitrary and extremely violent measures to punish them further, like spraying pepper spray in the food tray slot or making people get on their knees on the other side of the room when they deliver food or stripping the room and removing all their clothing if they’ve been self-harming. Those in solitary instinctively try to assert themselves as human and are often pushed to their psychological limits. They become angry, paranoid, and suicidal. In fact, 1/2 of all successful suicides in prison happen in solitary. Plus, more disenfranchised they get, the more desperately creative they get. People sometimes pee or spread feces on the walls. Kupers recounts seeing a solitary unit that was actually designed to be wiped clean of all human excrement by being built on a slant so they could just spray water in and it would all drip out in between occupants.

Isolation is also dubiously used as a pseudo safe place. Like, alleged gang members are sent there for protection (and they’re not let out unless they snitch). It’s also used to separate people after they report being raped (yet another reason not to report). Sometimes incarcerated people who fear for their lives will purposefully get into a fight to be thrown in solitary, only to be isolated and thus harmed by different measures. Incarcerated women in particular are at risk of being re-traumatized in solitary confinement, as they have extremely high rates of past sexual victimization (at least 2 or 3 times higher than the rest of the population). Teenagers put in solitary are also vulnerable to the damaging effects of isolation because their brains are still forming. It’s also worth noting that 90% of youth in prison suffer from mental illness and substance abuse (yes, both).

This solitary confinement problem isn’t just about the personal torture that so many people face. 93% of people in prison will be released back into society, so the way people are treated in prison directly effects everyone. When people get out of solitary specifically, they often suffer from what Kupers calls SHU post-release syndrome, which is kind of like PTSD. People are often so traumatized that they don’t want to leave their cell anymore (or if they’re home, they don’t want to leave their room). They talk less. They become completely prisonized. Really, until it’s abolished, those who do come out of isolation (and prison) should be granted serious therapy. Imprisonment is so wildly barbaric. Somehow our culture believes justice is other people being captured, tortured, and released.

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