"Deprived of all human contact, you lose your feeling of connectedness to the world. You lose your ability to make small talk, even with the guard who shoves your meal through the slot in the door. You live in your head, for there is nothing else." This was the experience of solitary confinement for Wilbert Rideau, who served nearly 44 years for manslaughter in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and it’s the animating conviction behind the hunger strike thousands of inmates have waged in California these last few weeks.
On July 8, some 30,000 prisoners began refusing food to protest a state prison policy that often confines suspected gang members to "Security Housing Units" for 22.5 hours per day without fresh air, sunlight or human contact. Those placed in the units can remain there indefinitely; some stay for a few months, others for years. As the Los Angeles Times noted, in 2011, 200 prisoners had spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement in the state’s Pelican Bay facility, and 78 had spent more than 20 years in those conditions.
Rideau wrote that when he was in solitary confinement, he counted his cell’s 358 rivets over and over again. Decades of counting rivets is a cruel but, unfortunately, not unusual punishment.
Even though the Supreme Court came close to declaring solitary confinement unconstitutional in 1890, the disquieting truth is that the United States has more inmates locked away in isolation than any other democratic nation, with an estimated 25,000 in so-called "supermax" prisons in 44 states and as many as 80,000 in other types of segregated facilities nationwide. As in California, the punishment is often billed as a means of addressing safety concerns within the prison, but there’s no evidence that it does anything other than unravel the minds of prisoners and push them beyond the reach of rehabilitation.
Roughly half of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement. In California, 42 per cent of prison suicides between 2006 and 2010 occurred in such segregation, even though prisoners kept in isolation account for only two per cent of the state’s inmate population. Last weekend, another California prisoner died in solitary confinement. Prison officials dispute that his death had anything to do with the hunger strike, citing suicide instead. Either explanation underscores the urgency of the issue.
Amnesty International has rightly condemned California’s use of the punishment, and the state has agreed to return 400 prisoners to the general prison population after reviewing their cases. But the problem is widespread, and it warrants a national solution. Lawmakers have called hearings on solitary confinement, and some states have begun to move away from relying heavily on the punishment. In other places, however, such as Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison, far too many are still counting rivets. In 2013, there’s no reason that should still be the case.