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Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr. Northern Correctional Institution, Somers, CT. Courtesy Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Via Solitary Watch.

Today, December 10th, is Human Rights Day. Organised by the United Nations, the day of action is based around the central tenet that “Each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights. Human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.”

As Prison Legal News and the Human Rights Defense Center recently pointed out:

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains several articles which would apply broadly to prisoners and former prisoners in the U.S., but unfortunately remain unrecognized by the U.S. government.”

Specifically, we should be looking at the enforcement of policy and law as they would uphold Articles 4, 8, 9 and 21.

The problems are endless. Executions need to stop — the state shouldn’t be murdering citizens. Mass incarceration, generally, brings with it almost insurmountable problems (overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, predation, sexual and psychological abuse). The prison industrial complex magnifies these problems in poor communities. I’ve noticed a cycle of issues-du-jour that append to critique of American prisons. Most recently, no doubt, the issue of solitary confinement has been widely discussed. Why? Because it is abusive and counter-productive. Moves in the right direction are starting to reign in the rampant use of solitary as a disciplining technique. I wrote about what’s at stake for Daylight Digital last year:

Juan E. Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is clear that solitary confinement is torture and permanently damages the mental health of prisoners.

“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” said Mendez in front of the UN General Assembly in June 2011. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”

Prisoners lose their minds quickly when deprived of human contact. Identity is socially created, and it is through relationships that individuals understand themselves.

Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” explained Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in an interview with WIRED. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”

Common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation include chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair. In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving and become essentially catatonic.

If a prisoner doesn’t withdraw within him or herself, he or she may resort to aggression. In his study of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, Haney found that nearly 90 percent had difficulties with irrational anger, compared with just 3 percent of the general US population.

Physician Atul Gawande has compared the permanent psychological impairment described in Haney’s research to that incurred by traumatic brain injury.

For many, calendar days such as these serve to raise brief awareness. Often not much more. In our busy lives it can be hard to stay on top of the ebb and flow of politics, policy and information; it’s tough to hold those in power accountable, especially if day-to-day we’re just trying to get the bare minimum done.

I don’t know what I think of e-petitions as I don’t know how to gauge their efficacy, but I do know it takes seconds to sign one and you can do it after the kids are in bed and the washing up’s drying.

Thanks to Prisoner Activist for this comprehensive list of 22 active petitions against solitary confinement.

ACLU: Stop the Abuse of Solitary!

ACLU Action: Allow UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Access to Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

ACLU Action: A Mother’s Plea: Stop Solitary Confinement of Children

ACLU of Arizona: Arizona is Maxed Out! No New Supermax Prison Beds

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): Stop Abuse of
Solitary Confinement

Amnesty International: US super-maximum security prisons must be opened up for UN scrutiny!

Amnesty International USA: Free Albert Woodfox – End the Injustice. Remove Woodfox from Isolation

Amnesty International USA: Solitary Confinement: US Government Must End This Cruel and Inhumane Practice

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB): Demand the State of California Stop the Torture

Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR): Honor the Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Demands

Free Zulu Movement: Please examine the case of Kenny Zulu Whitmore, held in solitary confinement for 35 years in Louisiana State Prison

Friends Committee on Legislation of California: Stop the abuse of solitary confinement

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): End Prolonged Solitary Confinement Now

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): Take Action to End Solitary Confinement of Youth in California

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): People of Faith Support Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014

New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) Says: End Solitary Confinement; No Supermax at Rikers

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Support Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Five Core Demands (hunger strike)

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Corcoran SHU Prisoners Start Hunger Strike for Decent Healthcare

Roots Action: End prolonged solitary confinement

Shut Down Logan River: Logan River Academy – Stop using solitary confinement a.k.a. “Precaution,” and “Development,” on kids

Sylvia Rivera Law Project: DOCCS, Make Housing Safer for Trans People in New York State Prisons!

The Petition Site: End Child Torture: Stop Holding Our Kids in Solitary Confinement!

European Space Agency simulation module used to study the effects of long term confinement. Photo: Pavel Zelensky/AFP/Getty Images

In June 2010, as part of the Mars 500 research project, the European Space Agency (ESA) put six trainee astronauts into a space flight simulation. In a giant ” tin can” in a Moscow hangar with no sun, no fresh water and no alcohol for 520 days, the psychological tenacity of these six ground-bound astronauts will be under constant scrutiny. Mars 500 is the most ambitious space-simulator research to date. The ESA put away its trainees in similar conditions for 105 days in 2009.

As a spokesman for Mars 500, Dr. Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish astronaut with the human spaceflight directorate of the European Space Agency (ESA) emphasised the usefulness of the study:

“This isn’t a joke. It will give a lot of useful information, not just about Mars but also for Earth […] People are isolated in many places in the world. We have scientists in the south pole for a long time, or in submarines. Then there are all those in jail.”

Fuglesang is right. Solitary confinement is never a joke.

Well-wishers, family and friends watch a video of the miners projected onto a screen erected near the collapsed gold and copper mine near Copiapó, Chile. Photo: Ivan Alvarado / Reuters.

When the Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days experts from NASA were called in as experts on the psychological strains of long term confinement. A call to the management of any one of America’s hundreds Intense Management Units (IMUs) could have been as useful (except for the fact that prisoners are hardly cared for or monitored in the way necessary to improve their psychological state.) On any given day in the United States, 20,000 men, women and children are held in solitary confinement.

I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating:

First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving” (Haney). [They] become essentially catatonic.

Source: Hellhole, The New Yorker, March 30, 2009, by Atul Gawande.


Everyday in American prisons wallow the equivalent of 600 Chilean mining disasters … except prisoners can remain penned in for longer than 69 days.

“The [psychological and cognitive effects of long term isolation] is not something that’s easy to study,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, “and not something that prison systems are eager to have people look at.” Haney leads academic research on solitary confinement and notes that US prisons didn’t always resort to its current widespread use:

We have an overwhelmingly crowded prison system in which the mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was suspended at the same time as the prison system became overcrowded. Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. And one big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement. They’ve used it without a lot of forethought to its consequences. That policy needs to be rethought. (Source)


Academics, studies and statistics may hook, inspire and lead some to direct action, but for others the voices of those who’ve suffered in solitary confinement may inform more effectively.

In a prison system that has lost its moral compass, in a system that uses solitary confinement cells as the new asylums, in a country which had made torture its own, it is the voices of the confined to which we should pay most attention.

I would like to recommend an excellent writer, who also happens to be a prisoner. Arthur Longworth was awarded First Place in memoir in the PEN American Center 2010 Prison Writing Contest. Longworth writes about the violence of the Walla Walla Intense Management Unit (IMU) in Washington State. Longworth’s second memoir piece is entitled The Hole.

You can buy The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #299180 ($7) by following the directions posted at Changing Lives, Changing Minds.


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