The Last Days of Solitary

This is a really disturbing documentary by the BBC on the US prison system, in which solitary confinement has become widespread as a last resort for dealing with violent uncontrollable prisoners.

But for centuries they’ve known it doesn’t work, and in many cases makes prisoners worse. It also costs a hell of a lot of money to maintain – staffing levels equal or above the number of prisoners, and has necessitated the building of super-max prisons.

The history of solitary confinement in the US dates back to the Quakers who believed it would connect a wrongdoer with God, provide time to amend for his sins, but it often made them disturbed.

Clips were shown of primates being kept isolated. They showed many of the characteristics described in zoo animals – compulsive behaviours like rocking to and fro, curling up in a ball. When another animal introduced to them they often turned violent. They never recovered.

The animal analogy is limited as they were already in a hostile environment, i.e. a laboratory, and of course scientist could not talk to them and try to fix them with talking therapies etc. But it still made disturbing viewing.

The supermax solitary was a real hell hole. Designed to be hosed out, the prisoners could see into a communal area, so could see and hear each other. They also managed to communicate and exchange notes and drugs.

They were noisy. They kicked and punched doors with terrifying violence. One prisoner flooded his cell. Another had a habit of seriously slashing himself. His cell looked like a murder scene. Another prisoner sealed off his window and blocked his toilet so sewage floated out under his door. When such events happened, prison officers did an ‘extraction’, all face masks, helmets, and followed by cam corder to sort him out. Terrifying but it seems some prisoners did it just to relieve the boredom, to be noticed.

But all this is changing. Prisoners are involved in programmes to address and deal with their behaviour in preparation for their ultimate release back into the general prison population and then into the outside world.

What seemed to be a common theme in these mens’ lives was how barren they were. Often from broken homes, one was on drugs at 11. None of them seemed to read or draw or have any internal resources to help them pass the time. Because that was the failing of the Quaker system. It was a sort of catch 22. If you were a pious person likely to repent, you probably wouldn’t break the law in the first place.

Before the Reformation, most bad behaviour was dealt with by shaming, by standing as a penitent in a shift in the parish church. I read of a young woman made to do this when she had a premarital relationship. She claimed she never recovered from the shame. In a small, close community there is nowhere to move on, tongues will always wag, and she would never be trusted in the company of another man. Shaming was outlawed in the US in the 19th century as it was seen as too painful. Yet solitary continued.

Solitary is not a punishment if you have things to do. Lots of religious people chose it to provide them with time to commune with their inner thoughts, with god. Artists often chose it. I spend a lot of time alone, but surrounded by my books. I love it. But I can always leave. Solitude chosen is not the same as when it’s used as a punishment.

The programme continued, showing some of the prisoners in therapy, how some of them returned to the general prison, then to be released. But adaptation to the outside world was hard. One spoke of how paranoid he was if anyone came up behind him. That’s really tough in a big city. Maybe impossible to deal with. One had high hopes – a wife and child on the outside, he felt he could make a fresh start. But he was arrested a few weeks later – he’d been violent again. If violence is your default setting for dealing with problems, it is so hard to shift that, especially in a country with such a powerful gun culture as the US.

At the end they discussed redemption. Prison counsellors knew there were some men who were beyond reform. A psychologist spoke of psychopaths not being nasty people, they were often charming, so more dangerous. They kill without remorse. They have been so isolated from humanity that murder does not break their moral code.

One prisoner talked of how he wanted a new start. He seemed the most promising, charming even. When asked if he was a psychopath, he smiled and said he was just misunderstood. Days later he murdered a prisoner with 2 shivs made from his bed. Stabbed him 87 times. 

I have no idea what society can do with such a damaged human. But these men seem to be empty vessels whose sole form of expression seems to be through violence. I have never seen a programme which speaks more loudly and clearly in favour of the arts, of literature and maybe religion. Anything that gives them some form of guidelines on how to behave, how to interact with others in a non-violent way. This programme should be a warning to the present UK government that thinks prisons work. Prisons are measures of broken societies. They don’t work because our leadership has failed.

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