Column, 502 words

Let’s End Torture in U.S. Prisons

Survivors call solitary confinement “living death.”


Solitary confinement is exactly what it sounds like.

A prisoner is kept in a small cell — usually 6 feet by 10 — alone, for 23 hours a day.

For one hour a day, he or she may be taken into a small cage outside, with the opportunity to walk in circles before being taken back in. Even the outdoor cage can usually be opened and closed remotely.

The idea is to keep the prisoner from having any human interaction. Those who’ve been through it call it a “living death.” The United Nations calls it torture.

The practice is widespread in the United States. And until recently, it was applied even to juveniles in the federal prison.


DieselDemon / Flickr

In January, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for federal inmates under the age of 18. He also ordered new limits on the amount of time prisoners of any age can be caged up alone.

These are great steps forward for human rights in the federal prison system. But they won’t help most of the prisoners currently in solitary, who languish in lower jurisdictions.

State prison systems across the country use solitary confinement as a way to destroy people. These prisoners routinely experience “intense anxiety, paranoia, depression, memory loss, hallucinations, and other perceptual distortions,” philosophy professor Lisa Guenther noted in The New York Times.

Many Americans think that solitary is reserved for the worst and most dangerous criminals. In most cases, that’s simply not true. Solitary is used not for the safety of inmates or prison guards, but as a punishment and as an expression of power by guards.

For example, a prisoner can be sent to solitary for “insolence” or for “investigation.” What does that mean? Anything the guard wants it to.

Talk back to an officer? Solitary! Take more than 15 minutes to eat your meal? Solitary! An anonymous source accuses you of gambling? Straight to solitary.

When an inmate is sent to solitary, the prison’s internal investigators are supposed to begin an inquiry into his or her behavior. They’re given 90 days to do it, after which the prisoner should be released back to the prison’s general population.

But in fact, the investigators can renew the 90-day solitary period for a full year. That’s an entire year living in a small gray room the size of a walk-in closet with no human contact. It would make just about anybody crazy.

Even when prisoners are fortunate enough to have an attorney or family members who can press prison authorities on their behalf, the prison can simply transfer them to another facility — where the whole solitary count starts over again.

That really is torture.

Obama’s policy change is a great start. But most prisoners will get no benefit from it unless state prison systems follow suit.

Ohio recently banned solitary for juveniles. That’s terrific. But until each and every state addresses this human rights issue, ours will be a nation that officially practices torture.

OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA First Amendment award.

  • Debra J. Gordon

    Wondering why a President addresses these issues on a Federals level and not inclusive of State Institutions?

    • Laura Lee

      The President of United States is a Federal branch of government

  • Laura Lee
  • Elizabeth Whitehouse

    I grew up in apartheid South Africa which was the pariah of the world. The most commonly cited human rights abuses were detention without trial (limited to six months) and solitary confinement. Do I actually have to draw parallels?

    Guantanamo and solitary confinement throughout the prison system are abominations and deserve the very same opprobrium that South Africa rightly received.

  • Tom Blanton

    It’s too bad Obama didn’t evolve a little sooner on this issue, like back when he proclaimed PFC Manning guilty and held him for 11 months in solitary confinement.