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090330_r18075_p233 In the March 30 issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande asks the question, “Is solitary confinement torture?” His compelling answer, supported by personal accounts from prisoners, is an unequivocal “Yes.” Gawande’s article mainly focuses on the stories of two American prisoners isolated for years with hardly any human contact, even from guards. The mental toll that solitary confinement takes on these men is readily apparent; one man sets his tiny cell on fire multiple times while the other becomes obsessed with revenge fantasies involving his captors. Gawande notes that locking people up in isolation for long periods of time makes them mentally unstable– they lose the ability to interact normally with others and often the will to live.

Today, solitary confinement is no longer limited to temporary punishment for unruly prisoners; it has influenced correctional design so fundamentally that entire institutions are built with the purpose of keeping inmates isolated from one another at all times.  These supermax prisons, or Special Housing Units (SHU), have become favored prison models in the United States.  Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio estimates that at least 25,000 inmates are currently serving their sentences in solitary confinement, locked up for 23 hours a day with only one hour allotted for exercise alone in a small concrete yard. In non-supermax prisons, suspected gang members are routinely thrown into solitary in a weak effort to dilute violence within the general population, while other times solitary is imposed arbitrarily or for minor offenses. The worst instance of solitary confinement nationwide comes from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox,  each spent 36 years in isolation, a situation Amnesty International declared “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”

For more information about the history of solitary confinement, click here. Also, read NPR’s fascinating three-part series on solitary confinement, which highlights Pelican Bay Prison in California, one of the U.S.’s most notorious supermax prisons.

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