Solitary confinement: A human rights issue within U.S. borders

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Gabriel Guzman spent three years of his 10-year prison term locked up in a small box-like cell for more than 22 hours a day. His time in solitary was broken up into stints of about four months each. Some were brought after he took part in fights but others, he said, were unwarranted.

He had next to no freedom and prison guards controlled almost every aspect of his life, he said.

“Your life becomes dictated by rules, regulations and other people controlling it,” he said. “It’s not the same in all prisons, but in Lawrence (Correctional Center in Sumner, Illinois) they handcuffed us and escorted us to the showers. We had no freedom.”

Released about three years ago after completing his sentence, Guzman, 33, now volunteers in Chicago to help other inmates. He  washes laundry and rugs for a living.

At any given time, some 61,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States. While this marks a drop from an estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary in 2014, many experts and activists argue that solitary confinement is unnecessary as there are better and more humane alternatives.

According to the United Nations, spending more than 15 days in solitary should be prohibited. Yet, in the U.S., many spend months and even years in solitary confinement.

In Illinois, the  Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC,  has reduced time spent in solitary by 47.5 percent and increased out of cell time for these inmates. However, the department is not planning to eliminate restrictive housing, said Hess, the agency’s media administrator. Many inmates are still placed in what prisons call “restricted housing” for far longer than 15 days.

Colorado state prisons are among the few that have banned the use of solitary confinement for a duration of more than 15 days, as officials saw no benefit to using long-term solitary confinement.

“Solitary confinement, especially for extended periods of time, is just meaningless,” said Alan Mills, the executive director at the Uptown People’s Law Center, a non-profit organization that caters to the poor and neglected in Chicago. “It’s like giving a 2-year-old a time out till they’re 15. I’ve not met anybody who has spent a significant amount of time in solitary who has not been significantly changed for the worst as a result.”

Inmates are often subjected to the whims of prison guards, even when it comes to being put in “segregation.” In some cases, inmates are placed in solitary for holding periods, till the guards can decide if they committed the alleged offense or if they are innocent.

“In the outside world, you have due process,” Guzman said. “But in prison, there is no such thing as due process. It’s just the word of the officer. If he says that you have to go to seg, then you don’t get to argue your case or anything.”

Gwyneth Troyer, the director of the prison monitoring project at the John Howard Association, a correctional policy organization, added that solitary confinement is overused in many prisons.

“When we talk to prisoners, it’s common to hear that many of them disagree with why they are put in seg,” she said. “In Illinois, there has been a reduction in the use of seg but it’s still very much an available tool for them (officers) and I still think that it’s being overused.”

Inmates in solitary are not always in a cell on their own, though. In some prisons, they share a cell with another inmate, in an initiative called double-celling. When bunk-mates don’t get along, tensions run high. But even when they do get along, boredom overwhelms many inmates, leading to a series of mental health issues.

The majority of incarcerated individuals in IDOC,  who are in restricted housing are placed in double-celled units, Hess said.

“I was lucky and had a good support system so I could afford to buy a lot of books and magazines to keep myself busy while in solitary,” Guzman said. “Doing things like reading and exercising kept my mind busy so I didn’t really get depressed. I had my books and other things that I liked. I kept focused on finding a purpose for myself.”

However, while Guzman was able to keep himself occupied, many others are often not as lucky.

“There are a lot of people who didn’t have what I had and so all their issues just build on them and compounds when they are in solitary,” he added. “When you have no outlet, it just weighs you down even more.”

Being placed in solitary confinement also impacts an individual’s ability to interact socially on multiple levels. According to Mills, it makes it very difficult for inmates to be around other people when they leave solitary.

“They sort of lose the social skills that they had when they went in,” he said. “A lot of them end up coming out traumatized from dealing with the isolation and the tend to lash out once they are out… this makes it a lot harder for them to develop the social skills that they need to get better.”

The mental issues faced by people placed in solitary confinement are also caused by sensory over stimulation and abnormal socialization, said Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a renown psychiatrist based in Denver, Colorado.

“You have people trying to talk to each other through the toilet, and that is just one example of abnormal socialization,” Metzner said. “They also face sensory over stimulation because people are constantly screaming and shouting in their cells, which results in never ending noise for everyone in restricted housing.”

Such situations can cause an onset of mental illness even in those with no such prior history. For Mills, the obvious side effects of solitary confinement are reason enough to call for abolishing the overuse of extended periods of time in solitary.

“There are better ways to get people to conform to the behaviors that they are supposed to,” he said. “It is important to deal with those who are worst off, like those who are put in solitary. I call it the trickle up theory. If you deal with the people who are the worst off that will make things better for everybody.”

People often assume that those who are locked up in solitary are the “Hannibal Lecter types,” said Troyer. “But in reality, you will find that due to how facilities are run, people who are locked up in solitary for long periods of time are not necessarily there for the crime that they committed in the first place.”

Even Guzman, who coped well with being in solitary while in prison, still struggles with anxiety since his release from prison. While he is slowly starting to learn how to communicate with people again, he gets nervous when talking to bigger groups of people. To cope, he often takes a step back to compose himself mentally, before continuing with his train of thought.

He added that he can’t live with a roommate just yet and is trying to adjust to having full control over his own life.

“I work hard and I am slowly building a life but for 10 years I was doing the same thing over and over,” he said. “The same yoga, the same exercises, the same reading and studying. Now that I have the whole world, I don’t know what to do with it.”

Guzman is planning to return to school and plans to start a career in heating and air conditioning installation and repair.

“In prison, money buys you freedom and thanks to my support system, I had enough money to buy good food and materials,” he said. “But now that I’m out, I want to have a career where I can make enough money to build my own life. I want to find purpose in my life again.”

Photo at top: Gabriel Guzman spent 10 years in prison, and a total of three years in solitary confinement during his incarceration. (Aqilah Allaudeen/MEDILL)