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SOLITARY CONFINEMENT HAS BEEN part of American correctional practice since the birth of the nation. The idea of isolating prisoners for their own good was supported in the final years of the eighteenth century by such prominent figures as Benjamin Franklin and his friend Benjamin Rush, the pioneering psychiatrist. During that era, many Quakers viewed crime as a moral lapse and jail as a place where prisoners would be left by themselves in a cell and would be expected to search their souls about their errant ways and be "penitent" (thus the origin of the word penitentiary). But over the years, prison funding could not keep pace with a growing prison population, so this kind of solitary confinement for the general population of prisoners was abandoned as too expensive to construct for or to maintain. Where solitary was retained, its original rehabilitative rationale was stripped away; it was now openly used merely as a dreaded punishment and deterrent within the prison and as a convenient means of separating out, for months, years, even decades, individuals whose inclusion in the general prison population might pose problems for prison management.
THE LONG HISTORY OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
The first correctional facility in the nation to consign prisoners to single cells was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. It was originally built in 1773 to handle the overflow of prisoners from the nearby, massively overcrowded High Street Jail. There were simply too many debtors, paupers, prostitutes, thieves, and ex-slaves going to jail for the jailers to find the space to house them. When Walnut Street Jail opened, it contained very large rooms with high ceilings where prisoners were crowded and left to shift for themselves. They received little attention from staff; there were fights, thefts, and sexual assaults; the cellblocks were filthy; and there was absolutely no attempt at rehabilitation. But fifteen years after the Walnut Street Jail opened, the Quakers, in collaboration with other religious groups, succeeded in opening a wing of the jail, the "penitentiary house," where each prisoner would have a room of his or her own, a notion very popular in the religious community. The small, clean single cells were arranged in a way that prevented the inhabitants from having contact with each other. They had windows high off the ground, and the window coverings prevented prisoners from looking out upon the surrounding streets. The prisoners in "separate confinement" were left alone in their cells and, at the beginning of their sentence, were not given work to do because the designers felt that they needed to be idle to properly reflect on their criminal ways and correct their life course. Later, however, the prisoners would be given handicraft materials and required to work alone in their cells — for example, repairing boots. An important feature of this "Pennsylvania System" for reforming criminals — one that at least to some degree may have mitigated the pains of isolation — was that the warden would visit each prisoner individually on a daily basis to check on his or her progress. By the 1830s, with a continuing crowding problem in the Philadelphia jails, the single cells were converted to house two prisoners each, the warden's visits became less frequent, and the conditions deteriorated until the penitentiary house at the Walnut Street Jail became as crowded and as nonrehabilitative in its aims as the group cellblocks that had preceded it. The Walnut Street Jail was finally shuttered in 1835. But other prisons, including Eastern State Prison in Philadelphia and Trenton State Prison in New Jersey, were built according to the "Pennsylvania System" that had originated there.
Eastern State Prison, established in 1829, also in Philadelphia, continued the effort begun at Walnut Street Jail to keep prisoners separate so that they could be penitent and to stress rehabilitation over punishment. Like the Walnut Street Jail, Eastern allowed some degree of prisoner labor carried out in solitude. The facility's architecture featured a central guard tower with multiple long hallways radiating out from it like the spokes of a wheel. The concrete cells had a high ceiling in the middle that contained a skylight, as if the "eye of God" were upon the penitent prisoner. There were small individual exercise areas outside the cells, but prisoners were not permitted to go to their exercise area when a neighbor was in his outside area. That way, the prisoners remained starkly separate. As at Walnut Street, the warden was, at least initially, required to visit and talk to each prisoner frequently. Apart from that, total silence was enforced, any form of communication between inmates was forbidden, and prisoners wore hoods when they were taken out of their cells so that they would never see the faces of other inmates or of guards. To deepen the silence, guards had to wear socks over their shoes, and the wheels of the food wagons were covered with leather. This was the second installment of the "Pennsylvania System."
Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville both visited Eastern State Prison while the Pennsylvania System was being implemented and wrote about what they saw. Dickens had this to say about Eastern State Prison in 1842:
In the outskirts (of Philadelphia), stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary, conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania. The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. 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.
As prisoners repeatedly broke rules in attempts to resist the isolation and monotony of this regime, attempting to escape, communicate with each other, or harm their captors, prison officials and guards improvised new punishments, including dousing prisoners with ice-cold water during winter or strapping prisoners so tightly into makeshift restraint chairs that they could not move at all and leaving them there for hours or days. Such abuses led to investigations. By 1913, the solitary confinement model was abandoned because of proliferating abuses, difficulties of finding work for prisoners that could be accomplished alone and in a small cell, and the high cost of housing prisoners separately. Prisoners were again housed in groups, and solitary was retained solely as a punishment rather than as a condition for all prisoners. But by the 1960s the prison had become so overcrowded that it was merely warehousing its inmates, and the building itself had deteriorated to such a degree that in 1970 Eastern was closed.
In 1816, in Auburn, New York, a large new prison opened utilizing a somewhat different model of isolation as rehabilitation, the "Auburn System." Auburn Prison is still operating, and its facade looks much as it did in the nineteenth century. When I visited the facility in 2007 while preparing to testify in a statewide lawsuit about the adequacy of mental health services in prisons run by the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), the very high, intimidating wall, which bordered the street, seemed to convey the utter separation and seclusion of prisoners that the regime was originally intended to enforce.
All of Auburn's cells were very small and single occupancy. They were arranged in two rows down the middle of the building and stacked in five tiers. Cell doors faced the outer walls, whose grated windows provided indirect light but no view of the outdoors.
Auburn Prison initially introduced solitary confinement in 1821 by imposing absolute isolation and idleness on prisoners, but according to Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, nineteenth-century French writers who visited the United States and toured the prison in 1832, this experiment had horrifying results: "In order to reform [the prisoners], they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills. The unfortunates, upon whom this experiment was made, fell into a state of depression, so manifest, that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger, if they remained longer in this situation." Some prisoners died, others attempted suicide, still others went mad. So in 1823 the system was modified to what became known as the Auburn System: prisoners were confined to their cells at night but were brought together in the daytime to take meals and to labor in prison industrial shops where products were manufactured for sale on the market. Even in these group settings, however, staff attempted to enforce absolute silence and noncommunication among inmates that would maintain their separation. Yet as de Beaumont and de Tocqueville note, "In observing silence, [prisoners] are incessantly tempted to violate its law," and additional punishments, even more severe punishments and restrictions had to be devised to prevent this and other infractions. Consequently, abuses — flogging, icewater baths, restraint positions — proliferated just as they had at Eastern State Penitentiary.
But the Auburn System, despite its critics, spread beyond the walls of Auburn Prison, informing especially the architecture, the use of isolation, and the work programs at Sing Sing Prison just north of New York City as well as prisons in other states. The Pennsylvania model effected at Walnut Street Jail could not be extended up above a single floor because it required a small outdoor area for each prisoner. But as prisons grew in size, that model would prove too expensive. The five stacked tiers of Auburn Prison proved more economical.
By the 1860s and 1870s, however, overcrowding and abusive staff practices had tarnished any reputation for effective rehabilitation that the Auburn System had once possessed. Like the Pennsylvania System, it gradually gave way to and was superseded by other approaches for the general prison population. Auburn today is a maximum security prison with little in the way of programs for education, work, or schooling, and with a solitary unit used for disciplinary purposes.
Thus all three experiments had as their starting point a Quaker vision of reform in which a prisoner would have the opportunity to introspect and reconsider his criminal ways, in a clean and quiet space, while being shown kindness and given counsel by visitors and officials who would guide his penitence. Even so, the system proved to be ineffective and cruel and to generate escalating abuses. Today solitary confinement has entirely lost its claims of rehabilitative purpose and has become merely a means of enforcing discipline and removing from the general prison population inmates considered to be dangerous or in any way problematic. The result is that these inmates are warehoused in deteriorating isolation cells, where they may be neglected for years.
According to the social historian David Rothman, this trajectory is replicated in larger historical trends. Reviewing publications by psychiatrists of the period, Rothman tracked the optimistic expectations that accompanied the construction of a new generation of mental hospitals and prisons under the Jacksonian reforms in the late 1820s and demonstrated how the initial optimism of clinicians and warders faded as ex-patients and ex-prisoners they had declared cured or reformed, and had released from the institutions, returned a few years later in a deteriorated state. Rothman concludes that by the time of the Civil War prisons and asylums had once again become mere crowded warehouses for incorrigible criminals and lunatics — the same fate as the Walnut Street Jail, Eastern State Prison, and Auburn Prison.
By 1890, when the US Supreme Court considered an appeal of the sentence for murder of Mr. James J. Medley, the expectation that solitary confinement involved penitence and provided rehabilitation had entirely disappeared, and the practice was seen as what it really was, harsh punishment. Mr. Medley had been sentenced to death by the Colorado District Court for the 1889 murder of his wife, Ellen Medley. The court also sentenced him to be consigned to solitary confinement at Colorado State Prison for one month prior to his hanging. Hearing an appeal of the case, the Supreme Court opined that solitary confinement was an additional punishment beyond execution, one that they called "a further terror and peculiar maker of infamy." The issue the Supreme Court justices were interested in was not the death penalty, which they thought was fair, but the ex post facto quality of the additional sentence to a month in solitary confinement at the state prison prior to the hanging. The state of Colorado had passed a new law making legal a period in solitary confinement at the prison, but that law was passed after Mr. Medley killed his wife, so he was being punished ex post facto. In its ruling, the Court referenced an entry in the American Encyclopedia that included this passage about solitary confinement:
The peculiarities of this system were the complete isolation of the prisoner from all human society, and his confinement in a cell of considerable size, so arranged that he had no direct intercourse with or sight of any human being, and no employment or instruction. ... But experience demonstrated that there were serious objections to it. A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even 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.
The site of solitary confinement that is perhaps most well known to the public is the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, nicknamed "the Rock." It was built on an island in San Francisco Bay and was opened in 1934. The most dangerous prisoners in the federal prison system were sent there, and security was very high. One of the famous inhabitants of Alcatraz was Robert Stroud, "the Birdman of Alcatraz," played by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film of that name. The penitentiary was composed of four cellblocks, A, B, C, and D, with the rowdiest prisoners consigned to D. D-Block was the site of varying degrees of solitary confinement: its prisoners would eat their meals alone in their cells and not be permitted to work or to have contact with other prisoners. At the end of the dark and dank hallway of D-Block were cells 9 to 14, which were called "the hole." Those cells had no light and were colder than other cells. Then, for prisoners who were especially incorrigible or disliked by officers, there was a basement under D-Block where the dark, cold cells contained a hole in the floor in place of a toilet. Prisoners were sometimes chained to the walls in the dark in "the dungeon" under "the hole" in D-Block. Needless to say, unfathomable other abuses and suffering went on in "the hole" at Alcatraz. The Rock was closed in 1963.
Another infamous solitary confinement unit was the "Adjustment Center" at San Quentin Prison, a large state prison jutting out into the San Francisco Bay from its northern shore in Marin County. It is California's oldest prison, having opened in 1852. The aging facility has a design capacity of more than three thousand prisoners, and until the 1980s it was the highest-security prison in California. The Adjustment Center at San Quentin was the site of stark solitary confinement, where political radicals of the 1960s, among others, were held in extreme isolation and very tight security. George Jackson was a black revolutionary leader who joined the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and wrote poignantly about race relations in America and why so many young black men found their way into the prisons. He was shot and killed by guards while housed in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin, allegedly while trying to escape. It remains unclear what happened on August 21, 1971, but it is known that George Jackson was gunned down by guards, that two other prisoners and three guards died, and that afterwards there was brutal retaliation against radical black prisoners in the Adjustment Center. The Adjustment Center, which is still in operation even though San Quentin is no longer the highest-security prison in the state, served as one of the models for the Security Housing Unit or "SHU" at Pelican Bay State Prison, which would open nearly two decades after the killing of George Jackson. Both the Adjustment Center at San Quentin and the SHU at Pelican Bay were premised on the notion that if "the worst of the worst" were locked away in solitary the problems of prison violence could be controlled.
Excerpted from "Solitary"
Copyright © 2017 Terry Allen Kupers.
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