© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The grim facts of solitary confinement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2013 - The adage has it that we cannot afford to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. It is a humble truism that recognizes we are flawed mortals living in an imperfect world. We muddle through by doing the best we can.

In our private lives, we recognize this truth, however reluctantly. Few claim to have married the ideal spouse, live in a perfect home, drive the finest car and work at a dream job. On the contrary, if the contents of advice columns, reality TV and the daily news are any indication, we seem to be defined by our shortcomings.

Yet, when it comes to public policy, we tend to demand a degree of excellence we would never expect of ourselves as individuals. In doing so, we tacitly assume that imperfect people when acting in concert are somehow capable of producing perfection.

George Will recently wrote a column about the horrors of solitary confinement in American prisons.  Because he is a reliably conservative commentator, I found it intellectually refreshing to see him adopt a liberal cause and his piece raised legitimately troubling issues. Unfortunately, it also ignored other equally salient facts.

Will describes in detail the “mental torture” endured by convicts subjected to super-max detention. These people are confined alone in a small, stark cell for 23 hours a day. During their one hour of “freedom,” they are allowed to shower and take a solitary walk in an exercise yard. This daily routine can literally drive a person insane.

The author begins by citing the by now familiar statistic that America has 5 percent of the world’s population but houses 25 percent of its prisoners. He then notes that “an estimated 25,000 inmates” are held long term in federal and state supermax prisons and “perhaps 80,000 others” are kept in “isolation sections in regular prisons” for varying lengths of time.

He concludes, “Clearly, solitary confinement involves much more than the isolation of incorrigibly violent individuals for the protection of other inmates or prison personnel” — although he neglects to explain why that assertion is clear.

Let’s begin by addressing the alarming rate of domestic incarceration. In 1982, the U.S. population was 231,534,000.  The FBI reports that 21,010 of those souls were murdered that year.

By 2009, the population had grown to 307,006,550, but the number of murders fell to 15,241. Despite a 32.6 percent increase in population, murders declined by 27.5 percent. And remember, these stats do not refer to the comparative murder rate, but to the actual number of homicides: 75.5 million more people committed 5,769 fewer murders.

Meanwhile, approximately 500,000 adults were confined in federal and state prisons in 1982.  In 2009, the number of incarcerated was 2,292,133 — still well under 1 percent of the total population but about 4.6 times as many inmates than in the earlier year.  As the number of imprisoned convicts rose, the number of murders fell.

Though correlation does not prove causation, economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame calculates that every additional year of offender confinement translates to 15 fewer Part I crimes.  Part I crimes, incidentally, consist of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson. In the 27 years between 1982 and 2009, violent crime declined 28.3 percent.

While the case can be fairly made that incapacitating criminals pays real-world dividends, the troubling issue of supermax confinement remains.  In his column, Will notes, “the first supermax began functioning in Marion, Ill., in 1983.”  Regrettably, he fails to mention what prompted the adoption of this extreme strategy. 

By the late 1970s, prison gangs had become the major challenge facing correctional officials in the U.S.  The ascendancy of these often racially hostile gangs gave many of them de facto control of daily life within institutions. The influence of some was so pervasive that they were able to supervise outside racketeering enterprises from behind prison walls.

It soon became apparent that it was a bad idea to allow the inmates to run the asylum.  In one year alone, 450 prisoners were murdered in American penitentiaries.

Four separate incidents, which took the lives of two convicts and two guards, prompted the adoption of supermax tactics in Marion.  After the murder of the second guard, the prison was simply placed on 24/7 lockdown indefinitely.  Over time, other institutions adopted and refined the technique as a way to restore and maintain internal control.

Just as the effort to confine convicts for longer periods of time coincided with a reduction in the crime rate for society at large, removal of the “worst of the worst” from the general prison population corresponded with a greatly reduced incidence of violence within penal institutions.

Critics like Will contend that the extreme isolation of supermax leaves prisoners permanently impaired and subsequently “unable to interact socially.”  That contention may be — and probably is — true.

Then again, before you reach supermax, you must first demonstrate that you are unfit to walk the streets with your fellow citizens; then prove that you are too dangerous to be confined with your fellow convicts. By that point, the prospects for a successful re-integration into society are not good in any event.

Last month, budgetary concerns in Illinois prompted the closure of that state’s last supermax facility in Tamms.  As of this writing, there have been three separate attacks on guards perpetrated by former Tamms’ inmates.

Psychological torture is every bit as real as its psychic counterpart and extended solitary confinement qualifies as a special form of hell.  But in some cases, it may simply be the best that we can do. 

M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon.