Apr 19

The Hell of Solitary Confinement

In Brief—A discussion of the institution of solitary confinement and its affect on inmates, both juveniles and adults, who are subjected to this form of torture as punishment for often minor infractions of the rules.


Brain-damaging Torture—

It’s dark and it’s cramped. After the occasional switchings, the spankings and the belt, there was also confinement in the dark closet as punishment for the latest infraction. It was the 1930s and 40s, in an America where corporal punishment was the norm and traditional. It still is in too many instances. Let it never be said that America is not a punitive society. The dark closet was one of the punishments meted out by my parents for infractions of the rules. I hated all of the punishments and the closet was no different.

Now imagine what solitary confinement is like—a common punishment for both adults and juveniles today. Rather than a dark, stuffy closet, today’s solitary confinement is often a very small, plain grey and white cell devoid of color with a frosted window allowing only light and a slotted steel door through which food can be passed by an unseen attendant. The inmate is isolated from others and refused the stimulation of human contact while confined alone in this deliberately sterile environment for twenty-three hours every day, not just for an hour like our closet but for days, weeks, months and even years.

We know that a juvenile’s brain is not yet fully matured like that of a normal adult. Jails, prisons and detention centers are nightmarish enough, but solitary confinement is a frequent punishment for juveniles as young as twelve as well as adults, for violations such as simply being uncooperative or troublesome. Occasionally, protection of the inmate is cited as a rationale, as nebulous as that sounds. It should therefore come as no surprise that a juvenile’s immature brain can be—and probably is—seriously damaged by solitary confinement. It’s torture, pure and simple.

WHACK! I was ten years old, but I was struck in the back of the head by an impatient Brother at the Catholic boarding school I attended. The Brother felt I was not moving fast enough after he ordered all the children in the room to leave disregarding the fact that the kids ahead of me were complying and moving through the crowded door. The Brother saw me as uncooperative.

Similarly, is it right for an impatient jailer (too often one who is racist as well) to use this as an excuse for ordering an inmate to be sent to solitary confinement? Assume that the inmate is black or Hispanic and you can see that this is something that is undoubtedly common practice in America’s too often privatized prison system.

The United Nations and Juveniles—

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has called prolonged solitary confinement “torture.” This is echoed by numerous scientific studies describing solitary confinement as psychologically injurious. Just as America’s prisons have been referred to as “rape factories,” we must recognize that prolonged solitary confinement has been found to be a form of torture regardless of the lack of violence found in rape.

Now let’s focus on the subject of juveniles in solitary confinement. Ian Kysel of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University’s Law Center has detailed the nightmare and damage suffered by numerous juveniles who have been isolated in solitary confinement throughout the country. For God’s sake take the time to click on the highlighted area or the link below to read his shocking description of this outrage in America’s justice system. It’s relatively short so it won’t take you long and it will enlighten you even as it enrages you.


Brief though this piece may be, solitary confinement is a fixture in the American jail and prison system. As recently revealed, it’s also a regular and abused fixture in the dysfunctional immigration system. Click on the highlighted area or the link below to read about it.



As I stated earlier, never let it be said that America is not a punitive society. Let’s reduce that reputation by eliminating all unnecessary cases of solitary confinement from the list of punitive practices in effect across America. Let’s choose rehabilitation instead. Rehabilitation has been proven to be effective. It’s time for the United States to join the civilized nations of the world.


  1. When you take your observations of the current use of solitary confinement, Don, and you couple it with the privatizing of prisons, you get a formula for even more serious abuse and conditions bordering on slavery. When for-profit money enters the picture, all hope is lost.
    The word Penitentiary was derived from the word penance. It was the intent of prisons originally to help correct the behaviors of the incarcerated by way of reflection and repentance. Idealistic, perhaps….but U.S. prisons are a very long way from the original intent.
    The chance of a modern day prisoner to repent through guidance, learn a trade, get an education, or modify future behavior through some sort of counseling or therapy is nearly impossible in the face of limited budgets, warped punitive measures, and the shear weight of the bureaucracy running the institutions. Not to mention the huge number of prisoners in this country, many of whom, make excellent teachers of the criminal craft to those newly entering the system.
    Banishment to an isolated island would be a better solution by comparison to the current system. Look at Australia…..that worked out…. 😉

      • Don Bay on April 20, 2015 at 10:03

      Right you are, Dave. America has a long way to go in correcting the injustices in its penal system. Cleaning up the prison injustices is just one of them. And don’t get me started on the privatization of the prison system.

      Your tongue-in-cheek comment about Australia reveals your sense-of-humor. Don’t change a hair lest you be banished.

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