With access to the New Yorker's archives open to the public for a limited time, Atul Gawande's critique of the United States' adherence to solitary confinement deserves a second look. Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher argues that as social creatures, humans isolated from the population are more susceptible to psychosis and experiencing a crisis of self identity, defined in terms of socially constructed relationships with other people. In the context of the prison system, solitary confinement has failed to curb rates of violence in prison, and has instead complicated prisoners' reintegration into society upon release.
With public sentiment in the United States strongly in favor of solitary confinement, viewed as a necessary evil to control disciplinary infractions, Gawande explores the possibility of reasonable alternatives. After public outrage grew over the cost of solitary confinement, Britain reformed its prison system, utilizing rehabilitation programs that the United States has abandoned, increasing social interactions in prison, and providing more access to mental health treatment. As a result, the cost Britain spends per prisoner and its rates of violence in prison have admirably decreased in recent years.
As Gawande notes, a 2006 bipartisan task force in the United States concluded that 'no benefits can be found and the harm is clear,' in solitary confinement beyond ten days, finding that long-term isolated prisoners were more likely to commit crimes when they re-entered society. In order to change public sentiment, the United States has to seriously reconsider its goals for solitary confinement because the data shows that isolation increases susceptibility to psychosis, examined using EEG readings, and probability of more violence, due to the public humiliation that accompanies isolation. American prisons should follow Britain's example and work to prevent violence and not punish violent behavior after the fact. With solitary confinement's cost and space requirements unsustainable, the United States should look to cheaper, safer, and more humane measures.
Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.