Is solitary confinement torture?

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What's happening: In response to reports that Paul Manafort was facing solitary confinement at Rikers Island prison in her congressional district, New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the former Trump campaign chairman should be released from isolation. She called the practice of solitary confinement "torture" and a "human rights violation."

Prisoners in solitary confinement are secluded from the general prison population and have little to no contact with other inmates. A 2017 study found there were roughly 61,000 people nationwide held in solitary confinement, with even more held in various forms of "restricted housing."

Why there's debate: Advocates for the use of solitary confinement say it is a necessary tool for maintaining order and safety within a prison. They say it is used to keep violent inmates away from the general population, to protect vulnerable prisoners and to work as a deterrent to prevent dangerous behavior.

Critics of the practice say prolonged isolation causes significant and lasting psychological damage, which could be a violation of the limits on cruel and unusual punishment in the Constitution. There are also doubts about its effectiveness in creating a safer environment inside prisons.

Solitary confinement is used in inappropriate situations, some say, such as immigrant detention centers or as a means of isolating marginalized inmates like children, LGBT prisoners and people with mental disabilities. Prolonged solitary confinement is considered torture by the United Nations.

What's next: A push to limit the use of solitary confinement has made headway in certain states amid pressure from advocacy groups and lawsuits by inmates. States like Colorado and North Dakota have significantly reformed their use of the practice. Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons in 2016. Bills that would overhaul the rules for solitary confinement are being considered by legislatures in New York and New Jersey.


Solitary confinement is needed to maintain order in prisons

"Solitary confinement remains necessary to counter the threat of gangs. Prison officials endorse the practice as one of the few effective ways of stopping violence and keeping prisons safe." — David C. Pyrooz and Meghan M. Mitchell, Wall Street Journal

Solitary confinement does irreparable harm to brain function

"Solitary confinement as a punishment is closer to a form of torture, with serious consequences for neurological health. Teams of researchers are investigating further the deep effects of this practice … in order to prevent profound changes in the brain." — Elena Blanco-Suarez, Psychology Today

It's difficult for the average person to understand the impact of solitary confinement

"It’s very hard to describe what solitary is like to someone who’s never experienced it. Very quickly you lose track of time. You don’t know what day it is, and you don’t know if it’s day or night. With nothing to occupy your mind your brain begins to meander, and you think your family and friends have forgotten about you, and maybe would be better off without you." — Laurette Philipsen, Tampa Bay Times

Solitary confinement makes prisoner rehabilitation more difficult

"How can one be rehabilitated and successfully re-enter society after years of unjust and inhumane treatment? How can we expect people to be better after the state has subjected them to such torturous and psychologically damaging conditions?" — Kevin Thomas, Long Island Herald

Psychological impacts of solitary confinement linger even after release

"I had developed a real mental illness. Being in a cell like that with nothing, all you got is your mind, and it’s already warped from years of fighting to stay alive, it’s not right. It’s not human, it’s not normal." — Former inmate Frank De Palme, The Marshall Project

Solitary confinement is particularly harmful to child inmates

"These effects are especially pronounced in juveniles because solitary confinement impedes their social and emotional development during a critical period of brain growth. Our brains don't fully develop until our early twenties. Making matters worse, solitary confinement exacerbates existing traumas, like the abuse and neglect that many of these kids have suffered in the past." — Emily Restivo, Salon

Solitary confinement reform is needed.

“Much more reform is needed. Inmates who have been warehoused in solitary confinement are prone to emerge damaged and ill-equipped to reenter society. That’s a practical concern; it’s also an affront to human decency.” — Editorial Board, Washington Post

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