Black History in the United States Has Always Included Solitary Confinement

by | February 29, 2024

More than 9 percent of Black men in Pennsylvania were imprisoned in solitary confinement for 15 days or more before they reached the age of 32, according to a 2021 study conducted at Columbia University. The study’s authors believe their findings likely apply to the broader United States as well. This means nearly one in ten Black men nationally has subjected to conditions that have been defined as torture by the United Nations, and shown to cause psychological damage, suicide, and PTSD. 

This is only one of many numbers showing a grossly disparate use of prison isolation on Black people. According to a 2019 study at Yale Law School, Black men and women represented a little over 13% of the US population. At the same time, Black men represented 40.5% of men in prison and 43% of those in solitary confinement, while Black women represented 21.5% of women in prison but 42.1% of women in solitary confinement.

The experiences of Black people subjected to solitary confinement are compounded by the generational trauma of slavery. The practice officially started ten years after the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania, at the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia in 1790 (pictured above). The souls of formerly enslaved people were among the first to christen the new isolation cells. Isolation and restraints were a regular feature of the lives of enslaved people outside of the prison system, as well.

I, too, have traveled in chains through so-called Restricted Housing Units in handcuffs, waist restraints, and shackles. My 21st-century plight mirrors the iron manacles worn by African captives. I was escorted like a wild dog out for a walk. I exercised in a small kennel. During my time in isolation, I witnessed men swinging back and forth on a pendulum between narcissism and despair. At its height, they saw themselves as gods and Prophets. But at their lowest they banged their heads on cell doors and screamed all day.

When incarcerated people of color demonstrate behavior related to mental illness they are more likely to be punished with solitary confinement, according to a study of the New York City Jail system. People of color already experiencing mental illness suffer greatly in solitary. Numerous scientific studies have shown the negative effects of solitary confinement on the human brain and body. According to a 2020 report from the National Library of Medicine, research reveals connections to paranoia, psychosis, post traumatic stress disorder, emotional disturbances, sleep disruptions, and isolation panic. 

Those held in solitary confinement for any amount of time are also 78 percent more likely to kill themselves within one year of being released from prison and 127 percent more likely die of an opioid overdose in the first two weeks, compared with other released prisoners who haven’t experienced solitary confinement. This is according to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 2023 report. This means that the disparities in the use of solitary, like so many other things in our world, are costing Black lives.

No one can exist in isolation without creating some type of structure or fantasy world; you have to create a world in which you can exist. The history of African Americans has always been about adopting new identities. We adopted new names, languages, and cultures to survive our slave captivity in America, and now more and more of us are slipping into another form of darkness, adopting new identities attempting to survive the captivity of mental illness brought on by the torture of isolation.

Although we come to a close in our celebration and commemoration of Black History Month, we should not close our eyes to the adversity we still face in American prisons. The United States has the world’s largest incarceration rate. Nearly two million people are locked up in our state and federal prisons and local jails. Of those, more than 122,000 are in solitary confinement, locked down for at least 22 hours a day, according to a 2023 report by Solitary Watch and Unlock the Box.

We have to put an end to the solitary confinement conditions that further hinder the freedom, the mental wellness, and the very survival of Black people in our criminal legal system. And we must reflect on what can be done to alleviate the damage already wrought by this torture. Our progress depends on it. 

For more information on racial disparities in the use of solitary confinement, see the Solitary Watch Fact Sheet Racism and Solitary Confinement.

Steve Brooks

STEVE BROOKS is an award-winning incarcerated journalist who has written for several publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Nation and the Appeal, as well as the San Quentin News. He is currently a fellow at Bay City News, reporting on criminal justice issues.

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1 comment

  • Take a look at Way Down in the Hole: Race, Intimacy, and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement by Professors Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith, Rutgers University Press (2023) for an in depth look /analysis of the “race” problem in solitary confinement.

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