A recent series of articles by the Star Tribune have brought new facts to light regarding solitary confinement and the effect it has on prisoners, and frankly, I’m horrified. The phrase “humans are social creatures” is so well-known because it’s true — the consequences of cutting someone off from other human beings, no matter how despicable their crimes may be, are numerous.
Prisoners who suffer from mental health issues are especially vulnerable to deterioration and are often placed in solitary confinement because of behavior officials see as inappropriate. These behaviors, however, can often be connected to a myriad of serious psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. These illnesses can be easily magnified when an inmate’s sole taste of freedom is the five hours per week of recreational time that they are allowed — provided the prison has the proper staffing to supervise.
If a prisoner is given the opportunity for mental health care, it must be through the same slot through which their meals are shoved. In what universe does the prison system think this is proper care for the inmates under their supervision? How in the world are these people, who are put in solitary specifically because of their behavioral problems, supposed to form a bond with psychiatrists and manage to take steps in a positive direction if they can’t even see them?
It’s mind-boggling that even with 30 states having put restrictions on solitary confinement over the past six years, Minnesota has not been one of them. Instead, this state in particular has sentenced 17,500 prisoners to “restrictive housing” in the past decade. Even with the knowledge that many professionals define isolation as torture, a state as progressive as Minnesota has done nothing to resolve the problems that social isolation can cause.
The worst part is that solitary confinement sentences are handed out like timeouts in elementary school, not taking into account the severe consequences for the inmate. The most minor infringements can easily snowball into weeks, months or even years of solitude.
If we want to have a better chance at reforming prisoners and giving people opportunities to grow, we can’t be stuffing them in boxes and limiting their access to proper care. The only way that inmates will ever be able to make different decisions in life is through the influence of others, not the featureless grey walls of a solitary cell.