The Word: What Will It Take to End Torture in U.S. Prisons?

The Word from Solitary Watch for November/December 2022

by | December 14, 2022

Today, at least a dozen men incarcerated at Nevada’s Ely State Prison entered the 14th day of a hunger strike protesting “the continued and extended use of solitary confinement.” They are not the first to take a courageous and desperate stand against solitary confinement using the only means available to them, and they will surely not be the last. 

Locked in their cells in a remote mountain town, the Ely hunger strikers know what everyone who has experienced solitary knows: Being deprived of human contact is a form of torture, even if the scars it leaves are invisible to the eye. And this fact means that they are victims of the largest incidence of mass torture in the United States today.   

The idea of solitary as torture—a concept absent from the public consciousness just a decade ago—has been steadily gaining ground, propelled by evidence-based information, investigative journalism, and firsthand accounts of life in solitary (pioneered in large part by Solitary Watch).

Perhaps most encouraging of all, a recent poll by Data for Progress found that a bipartisan majority of likely voters supports limiting solitary confinement to brief periods for de-escalation purposes, with even stronger majorities supporting bans on solitary for people with mental illness or physical disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups. Remarkably, nearly two-thirds of all voters favor “rehabilitation and treatment” as a response to misbehavior in prison, rather than the punishment of solitary confinement.

These, in turn, have helped garner attention and condemnation from the UN and other international human rights bodies, and build a growing and determined advocacy movement, with strong leadership from solitary survivors. The first laws sharply limiting solitary confinement, and mandating more humane alternatives, have been passed in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, while Colorado and other states have drastically reduced their use of solitary as a matter of policy.

Despite all of this, in a new analysis (to be released in the new year), Solitary Watch found well over 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement daily in federal and state prisons and local jails. Even in states with potentially transformative legislation or policy directives, resistance to change from prison staff and some local officials has been fierce. And at the national level, the current administration, which made a campaign promise of “ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions,” has taken no meaningful action to date.

What is necessary to finally achieve the goal of ending solitary confinement? What will it take to end the most widespread practice of torture currently taking place on American soil?

“The day will come when [we] will ask: ‘How could we ever have done that to human beings?’”

The new poll shows that when people are made aware of the reality and ubiquity of prolonged solitary confinement—and the availability of alternatives to this torturous punishment—most will oppose it. When they are forced to consider solitary as torture, that opposition becomes stronger. So public awareness and education, while they are constantly growing, remain a challenge.

A second challenge has to do with the fact that prisons are hidden worlds, and the people held in prisons are often viewed as somehow less than full human beings, and thus less deserving of protection of their basic human rights. 

Imagine, for a moment, the outrage that would be generated if random Americans were being publicly tortured by the government in the public squares of cities and towns across the country. Something like that level of outrage is needed—is demanded—in response to the use of solitary confinement, even though it happens inside prisons and jails, to people who have been convicted or accused of crimes. That outrage, in turn, needs to translate to political engagement and action.

An advocate once told us that he believes the day will come when the bulk of Americans will look back at solitary confinement the way they do slavery, and other abominations that were once legal and widespread in this country. When that happens, he said, they will ask: “How could we ever have done that to human beings?”

At Solitary Watch, we also believe that day will come. But for the Nevada hunger strikers, and for tens of thousands of others enduring lonely torture in their prison cells, it can’t come soon enough.

Read earlier dispatches:

October 2022: Dismantle Prisons or Improve Conditions? As Someone Inside, I Know We Must Do Both

September 2022: Torture Before Trial

July/August 2022: The Art of Changing Hearts and Minds on Solitary Confinement

June 2022: In Prison, We Face Epidemics of Isolation and Neglect on Top of COVID-19

May 2022: The “Voiceless” Do Have Voices. Are We Listening?

April 2022: The Myth of Safety Through Punishment

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