80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours in isolation

March 11, 2013 3:34 pm 0 comments Views: 27
A hallway at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The prison, opened in 1829 and closed in 1970, pioneered the use of solitary confinement.

An estimated 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years, according to a report by NPR.

Amid growing evidence that solitary confinement causes mental breakdown, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided for the first time to review its policies on solitary confinement, the report said.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which opened in 1829, pioneered solitary confinement. The idea behind the prison’s solitary confinement areas was to use sensory deprivation to reform inmates. The thought was that the isolation and quiet would free the innately good soul.

“They believed that isolation here was going to bring about the best of these inmates. Change them for life. Make them penitent [but] there is a lot of evidence that that is not what happened,” says Sean Kelley, director of public programming at the historic site.

Solitary confinement exploded in the U.S. with the law-and-order policies of the 1980s, when almost every state built what’s called a “supermax” for the so-called “worst of the worst.”

Solitary confinement already doubles to triples the costs of incarceration, up to $60,000 a year per inmate. But wardens who’ve seen its wide use now in the last 30 years have their own evaluation of whether it does more harm than good, NPR said.

American prisoners in solitary confinement have testified about suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, hallucinations and other ills.


The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other so-called democratic nation in the world, according to Reuters.

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day and more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement, according to Reuters.

The United States’ prison population has exploded in the last three decades, quadrupling in the last 25 years alone, in large measure because of the growth in private, for-profit prison operators. wsws.org

The number of federal prisoners has ballooned from 25,000 inmates in 1980 to 219,000 today, according to a new Congressional Research report. That’s a jump of almost 790 percent. The Huffington Post

Most prisoners in the United States, however, are held in private prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) paints an even bleaker picture of the U.S. prison system, according to the ACLU, overall , “there are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country — that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 — and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses.”

According to a recent study from Vanderbilt University and published in the American Journal of Public Health, it is estimated that an adult male in the U.S. has fully a 9 percent lifetime risk of being imprisoned.

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