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The Agony of Solitary Confinement: It’s Like Being ‘Buried Alive,’ Prisoners Say

Here’s what it’s like to be in solitary confinement in a supermax prison—you are locked into your 8- by-10-foot cell for 23 hours per day, where the lights are on all the time. There are no windows in your cell to let in sunlight. Your only view is the window in the cell door that looks out onto a sterile cellblock.

When you are allowed out for one hour of recreation per day, you must first be strip-searched. Then you are shackled hand and foot and taken by two guards to a small wire cage that is your “exercise” yard. You are not allowed to talk to the guards, or to the other prisoners who may be exercising in the cages next to you. You are then shackled again, and led back to your cell. All meals are served to you through a slot in your cell door. If you’re very lucky, you will be allowed outside twice a week where, shackled to a table in the middle of the cellblock, you will perform menial labor, like wrapping packets of sporks and salt in napkins that will be placed in the prisoners’ meal trays.

Imagine living like this year after year after year.

“I don’t think solitary as it currently exists, the lack of any human contact of any sort, is necessary in any case,” says Kristin Jacobson, whose film Solitary, shot at the Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Va., debuts this week at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and will be broadcast later this year on HBO. “This is the United States. We have a Constitution, we condemn the abuse of human rights elsewhere, and just because you’ve committed a crime you have not given up your rights as a human being.”

Solitary confinement has, in fact, been part of American penology since at least 1829, when Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary housed prisoners in isolation, hoping that the silence would encourage them to think about their foul deeds and become truly penitent (thus the term “penitentiary”).

But the practice really took off in the 1980s, when harsh drug laws, gang activity and mandatory sentencing saw the prison population increase dramatically. “Solitary grew rapidly just about everywhere; it tracks with the growth in the prison population, and prison overcrowding,” says Jean Casella of Solitary Watch, a Web-based organization providing research and news about solitary confinement in the U.S.

“You had all these people,” says Casella, “and this was one way to control them.”

It is estimated there are now as many as 80,000 prisoners in some form of segregated confinement, nearly a third of them in supermax prisons.

Yet studies have shown that extended stays in solitary can create severe psychological damage, causing prisoners to have hallucinations, panic attacks, severe paranoia, and other symptoms.

“Social interaction is a fundamental need, and when it’s withdrawn, our brains experience that in the same way physical pain is experienced,” says Alexis Agathocleous of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “A prolonged period of isolation is a form of social death.”

That’s certainly the case with the prisoners in Solitary, who describe their experience as being “buried alive,” and feeling “this rage that builds and builds,” to the point where they express extreme frustration and anger over small things like not having any salt in their food tray.

Plus, solitary confinement can be extremely expensive. Single-cell confinement and enhanced security mean construction costs of supermax prisons can be two to three times that of a conventional facility. Add in the necessary extra staffing and it has been estimated that the cost of housing a prisoner in solitary is two to three times that of housing a prisoner in the general population.

And there’s this: Despite the conventional wisdom that solitary is for the worst of the worst, or to isolate prisoners for their own protection, some prisoners are put in solitary for minor offenses like having too many postage stamps (considered contraband), refusing to eat all the food on their tray, cursing a guard or refusing an order—any kind of order.

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