Five Things You Need to Know About Solitary Confinement


NEW YORK/PITTSBURGH — By Bret Grote and Kanya D’Almeida. This article was first published by Ecosocialist Horizons

Stop the average person on the street in any major city in the United States and ask them if they were aware that for 60 days this summer scores of U.S. citizens were on a sustained hunger strike; the vast majority will tell you they had no idea.

Their ignorance is unsurprising, since the hunger strikers are often portrayed as the “worst of the worst” in U.S. society – California state prisoners declared unfit for the general prison population and placed in administrative segregation units (ASUs) or security housing units (SHUs).

The prisoners – who, along with their lawyers, advocates and international experts on detention, refer to time spent in these units as solitary confinement – were protesting conditions in the 8X12-foot, windowless cages where anyone on the wrong side of the prison administration is placed for 23 hours out of the day.

Much has been written about the peaceful strike, which began on July 8 when some 30,000 of California’s nearly 133,000 prisoners refused their meals.

On August 25th, as the strike entered day 50, the number of participants had dropped down to just 120, with many still mourning the death of 32-year-old Bill Sell who reportedly hung himself in his cell at Corcoran State prison on July 28th after refusing food for 20 days.

By the time prisoners called off the strike last week, 100 participants were still holding out hope that their demands basic demands – such as an end to long-term solitary confinement, adequate and nutritious food, constructive rehabilitative programming and an end to group punishments – would be met.

Though largely obscured by the mainstream media, news of the strike appeared in the form of Facebook profile pictures, blog posts, or on progressive news portals.

But the articles and Tweets left one stone largely unturned in their haste to pillory yet another horrific aspect of the increasingly unpopular U.S. prison system.

Under that stone lies a history of solitary confinement in the U.S. that has been carefully censored, attacked or erased by the government because it points to a systematic assault on one group of prisoners in particular – political activists.

The strike may be over for now; but the conditions faced by prisoners in solitary confinement – and the reasons for their indefinite detention – are far from being a thing of the past.

1. The Legacy of Marion and Political Prisoners

The year was 1972 and television channels were too busy broadcasting the departure of the last of the U.S.’s ground troops from Hanoi, Vietnam, to remark upon a major domestic development that ought to have received national attention: the creation of the first “control unit” in the United States’ prison system.

At the time, the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois (300 miles from Chicago) was a 350-person facility notorious for its poor treatment of prisoners and subsequent protests.

One of those protests – a peaceful work stoppage initiated by a Puerto Rican nationalist – resulted in several prisoners being placed on lockdown, thus creating a “prison within a prison” where, officials claimed, insubordination would go to die.

“Gang members” and other “trouble makers” earmarked for lockdown would atone for their sins sans sunlight or human contact. Only two showers a week and a few hours of exercise in the “yard” – narrow rooms topped with barbed wire or encased in Plexiglas – would break the monotony of life in a cage.

It did not take prison rights activists long to figure out who was destined for the dungeons at Marion: in the words of the prison’s then-superintendent Ralph Aarons, “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the U.S. prison and in society at large [emphasis ours].”

To anyone unfamiliar with the major political upheavals of the 1970s, this statement holds little weight; but to those involved in such struggles as the Black Liberation Movement, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement or the American Indian Movement, Aaron’s words were nothing short of a warning to all those attempting to implement fundamental change – social, political or economic – across the United States.

Before long, Marion had become home to such anti-racist activists and political thinkers as Native American organizer Leonard Peltier, Black Panthers Sundiata Acoli and Sekou Odinga, Puerto Rican independentista Oscar Lopez Rivera and white revolutionary Bill Dunne.

None of these prisoners were guilty of violating prison rules, nor did they have histories of misconduct while in prison – in fact, advocates claimed there was no rational reason for isolating them in the country’s only Level 6 penitentiary other than a desire to hinder their political activity.

Soon, every single prisoner in the facility was on “lockdown”, earning Marion the title of the United States’ first-ever “control unit prison.”

According to Nancy Kurshan, a founding member of the now-defunct Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), the entire operation was a Congress-backed experiment to test the waters of public opinion: would American people tolerate the existence of a facility dedicated to indefinite and extreme isolation? Would it turn a deaf ear to the desperate testimonies that escaped the control units on scraps of paper and whispered phone calls?

“If these horrific conditions could win public acceptability,” Kurshan predicted back in the mid-80s, “then the government would establish control units everywhere.”

That warning came to bear bitter fruit – in her recent book, ‘Out of Control: A Fifteen-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons’, Kurshan writes, “A country that had not a single control unit prison in 1985 now [in 2013] has at least one in every state.”

By 2005, according to Kurshan, 44 states had constructed their own control unit prisons. Some, like the infamous Lexington Control Unit in Kentucky, have since been shut down; others – the Pelican Bay State Prison being the one of the most notorious examples – continue to welcome prisoners into their deadly embrace.

Currently, over 65 activists – classified as political prisoners by the National Jericho Movement based on their involvement in a host of liberation struggles – are languishing in U.S. prisons, most of them in solitary confinement.

2. A War on the Mind

Every morning, 70-year-old Russell Maroon Shoatz paces the length and breadth of his 8×12 foot cell.

Shoatz was arrested for his participation in the Black Liberation Movement in 1971, on the basis that he was involved in the murder of a Philadelphia park guard.

Though he never pled guilty to the crime, and despite questionable evidence connecting him to the killing, he has spent the better part of his life – nearly 30 years – in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) throughout the state of Pennsylvania, without any contact with human beings, not even his grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

His lawyers say his isolation from the prison population cannot be traced to any rule violation or administrative transgression but to his role as a mentor and educator of young prisoners.

In letters exchanged with EH, Shoatz said he follows a grueling daily physical and intellectual regimen in order to retain his sanity in a place engineered to patiently attack the human mind, pushing it closer to madness every single day.

More than 30 years ago, Stuart Grassian, a leading forensics psychiatrist and former faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, described the emotional pain experienced by prisoners like Shoatz as “SHU syndrome”.

“Even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern toward an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium,” he wrote in the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy in 2006.

His extensive research shows that those subjected to long-term isolation – defined by the United Nations as a period exceeding 15 days in “the hole” – will almost certainly “suffer permanent harm” and exhibit symptoms characteristic of delirium, an acute organic brain syndrome marked by a decreased level of alertness, perceptual and cognitive disturbances, fearfulness, paranoia, agitation, and random, impulsive, and self-destructive behavior.

While prison officials are loath to admit the mental impacts of isolation – in fact, no state Department of Corrections (DOC) even uses the term “solitary confinement” – thousands have expressed concern over the approximately 80,000 people held in isolation in U.S. prisons on any given day.

On Friday, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, appealed to the U.S. government to “abolish prolonged or indefinite isolation”, adding that long-term solitary confinement could “amount to torture.”

3. The History and Future of Isolation

Long before the Marion Control Unit, the U.S. had perfected the art of extreme sensory deprivation for punitive purposes, experimenting in the early 19th century with a new prison system that relied almost exclusively on solitary confinement.

Pioneered in Pennsylvania and referred to as the ‘Philadelphia System’, the experiment attracted luminaries from all around the world to tour the vast jails and witness first-hand a project that claimed a desire to “rehabilitate”, rather than incarcerate, societal miscreants.

Following one such tour in 1862, the renowned English author Charles Dickens concluded that, far from “correcting” behavior, the prisons were engineered to incapacitate the inmates.

“The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement,” Dickens wrote. “Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into the melancholy house, a black hood is drawn, and in this dark shroud,…he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He is a man buried alive…dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”

The disastrous results of this system soon caught the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court and the experiment was abandoned – but not before thousands of men had been driven ill or mad. This would not, however, be the end of the practice.

In a paper entitled ‘Man Against Man’, presented at a 1962 Bureau of Prisons meeting in Washington DC, MIT professor Dr. Edgar Schein, who had written extensively about the brainwashing of Chinese prisoners of war, theorized: “[You must] think about brainwashing not in terms of politics, ethics and morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human behaviour and attitudes by a group of men who have relatively complete control over the environment in which the captive populace lives.”

Schein also suggested some “practical recommendations” for breaking down a prisoner’s spirit including physically removing the prisoner from his friends and loved ones, segregating all leaders and encouraging or even coercing prisoners to spy on one another.

These studies, and more recent experiments like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, suggest that solitary confinement is not designed for security and deterrence, but instead functions to fundamentally alter political views, yield information about political activities believed to be detrimental to the state, strip prisoners of their agency, and isolate those capable of disseminating political ideas to the general prison population.

As Shoatz wrote in his recently published collection of essays – which has just been banned by the Pennsylvania DOC – “The torture technicians who developed the paradigm used at the control/housing units realized that they not only had to separate those with leadership qualities but also break those individuals’ minds and bodies and keep them separated until they are dead.”

4. The Insanity of Security

Gradually, researchers and activists are drawing back the veil on RHUs and long-term isolation.

Dr. Craig Haney, widely recognized as one of the leading experts on solitary confinement in the U.S., says he has found “no credible or convincing data” supporting claims that solitary confinement improves security, decreases violence, or produces any significant positive outcomes.

In stark contrast to the “massive body of evidence” documenting the suffering caused by solitary confinement, there is an “absence of documentation” supporting claims that the practice achieves its stated objectives.

The ‘incapacitation hypothesis’ – based on the belief that segregating prisoners precludes their being able to carry out violent acts – fails to account for increased psychiatric complaints, acts of self-mutilation and suicide, and property damage, which all go hand in hand with solitary confinement.

Terry Kupers, another leading expert on the mental health damage done by solitary confinement, has found that approximately 50 percent of all prison suicides occur amongst the 2-8 percent of the prison population being held in isolation.

Further corroboration of how isolation units actually operate was provided on May 31, 2013, when the U.S. Department of Justice published a scathing report documenting its investigation in the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson in central Pennsylvania.

The report found that “Cresson’s practice of subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of isolation . . . has resulted in harm, including trauma, bouts of hysteria and extreme paranoia, severe depression, psychosis, serious self-injury and mutilation, and suicide.”

In one instance, a prisoner “tore open his scrotum with his fingernail while housed at the RHU after experiencing isolation and a lack of adequate treatment there for three months.”

5. Forging Solidarity in Hell Itself

By creating units that the radical priest Daniel Berrigan once termed “hell in a very small place” prison officials have unwittingly exposed the cracks in the assertion that solitary confinement enables the Bureau of Prisons (COP) to “tackle increased gang activity” and improve overall prison security.

Prisoners say the opposite is true: guards are highly dependent on gangs to maintain a balance of terror in prisons, often even encouraging rivalry and gang warfare.

As hunger striker Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa pointed out in his August 18th article entitled ‘CDCR’s $9.2 Billion Corruption Machine vs. Prison Human Rights Movement’, a 13-year-long struggle to end all hostilities between racial groups has been stymied by none other than prison officials themselves, who have repeatedly refused to allow gang representatives to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Entombed in California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), Jamaa says the recently ratified Agreement to End All Hostilities came into being when control unit prisoners concluded that, too often, guards could justify brutality, abuse or even execution of prisoners with the claim that “gang warfare” was on the rise.

“We called for an end to hostilities to eliminate giving prison guards an excuse to kill prisoners,” Jamaa said simply.

It should come as no surprise that California refuses to concede to the prisoners’ modest demands, since doing so would send the message that those cast as the most unwanted elements in society are capable of democratic agency, entitled to human rights protections, and able to pry concessions from the maws of the state through organised resistance.

What is surprising is the lack of support the hunger strikers have received from all but the most radical fringes of society. Now more than ever, those banished into the darkest dungeons on this earth are in need of a groundswell of pressure from the outside. Failure to do so would be tantamount to lining up on the wrong side history.

As Morton Sobell, who spent five years at Alcatraz prison, said to a group of tourists standing in line to board a ferry that would take them to the former prison: “I don’t understand people in this country. When we were at Alcatraz no one paid much attention to us. Now, everyone wants to go there.”


Bibliography – Rolling Stone, ‘The Five Most Important Demands from the California Prison Hunger Strike’, July 16, 2013 – ACLU, ‘How to Really End Mass Incarceration’, August 15, 2013 – Revolutionary Worker #947, ‘The Tortures of Lexington 1986-88′, March 8, 1998 – Russell Maroon Shoatz, blog. – Washington University Journal of Law and Policy Vol. 22:325, ‘Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement’, 2006 – Solitary Watch, ‘How Many Prisoners Are in Solitary Confinement in the United States?’, February 1, 2012 – United Nations News Centre, ‘UN independent expert calls on US to ban prolonged, indefinite solitary confinements’, August 23, 2013 the implacable.pdf – PM Press, ‘Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz’, 2013 – Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, ‘CDCR’s $9.2 Billion Corruption Machine vs. Prison Human Rights Movement’, August 14, 2013