Solitary confinement has long been considered the most severe form of punishment possible, except possibly the death penalty.
In 1842, Charles Dickens, on his tour of America, which included tours of U.S. prisons, found America’s use of solitary confinement a singularly unequal punishment, writing:
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years inflicts upon the sufferers; . . . I held this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars on the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extends few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on solitary confinement, calling it a punishment of the “most important and painful character.” Click here for Supreme Court Ex Parte Medley
In dictum, the Medley court articulated that in the past there had been serious objections to the use of solitary confinement. That “a considerable number of prisoners fell, even after a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
After this, solitary confinement went out of favor. However, in the 1970’s and 80’s, America lost the wisdom of its ancestors and started using isolation once again. At first it was only for those deemed most violent. Then it was used to isolate (or punish) those who complained about mistreatment, violence, and sexual abuse by officers in prisons and jails. Later it became standard practice to isolate inmates under 18 – children, gays, trans-gender persons, and just about anyone for any reason.
In 1990, expressing strong concern bout the growing use of solitary confinement, and the large number of studies showing the overwhelming evidence that solitary confinement causes harmful effects on prisoners’ mental health (and even their physical health), the United Nations called for its abolition. Click here for Principle 7 United Nations resolution, 14 December 1990
More recently a large number of organizations around the world have condemned solitary confinement as a form of torture, including the United Nations, the American Convention on Human Rights, Solitary Watch, the Vera Institute of Justice, American Friends Service Committee, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, Physicians for Human Rights, the Human Rights Defense Center, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, along with many others.
The American Bar Association has spoken out against solitary confinement. Even private corporations have spoken out against this secret punishment. In its October 2013 issue of Scientific American the Board of Editors wrote a scathing editorial denouncing the use of solitary confinement as cruel. Exclaiming that “such extreme isolation and sensory deprivation can take a severe, sometimes permanent, toll on emotional and mental health.” Another scientific publication, New Scientist, called solitary confinement “singularly barbaric,” and highlighted the appalling cruelty of this punishment in its 12 June 2015 issue.