Lynn Parramore lays out the reasons why solitary confinement is a form of torture.
The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
In the earliest days of our Republic, a group of well-meaning Philadelphia Quakers set out to reform the prison system. The idea was to remove convicts from the mayhem and corruption of overcrowded jails to solitary cells where sinners would return to mental and spiritual health through reflection. In the Walnut Street Jail, no windows would distract the prisoners with street life; no conversation would disturb their penitence. Alone with God, they would be rehabilitated.
There was a small problem. Many of the prisoners went insane. The Walnut Street Jail was shut down in 1835.
But the word penitentiary became part of the language, and the idea of placing prisoners in solitary confinement did not die. It seemed so reasonable – so much better than chain gangs or public stocks. New prisons opened to test the theory that solitude might bring salvation to criminals.
Charles Dickens had a keen interest in prison conditions, having witnessed his father’s detention in a Victorian debtor’s prison. When he heard about the latest American innovation in housing convicts, he came to see for himself. At Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, the wretches he found in solitary confinement were barely human spectres who picked their flesh raw and stared blankly at walls. His on-the-spot conclusion: Solitary confinement is torture. [Continue reading.]