Effects of Solitary Confinement Throughout History

Brandon Wang

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The report below outlines the history and practices of solitary confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Once housing hundreds of inmates, Eastern State Penitentiary is now a musuem anyone can visit in Pennyslvania.

Allegedly derived from a Quaker belief of repentance, solitary confinement was first used in incarceration at the Eastern State Penitentiary opened in Philadelphia in 1829. Solitary confinement was fronted as a way for criminals to be rehabilitated while in reality only succeeded in punishing them. The prison system within Eastern State Penitentiary forced its inmates to live in isolation which theoretically would bring penitence. Prisoners were held inside of a small cell and focused on religion and labor to pray and repent for their crimes. Unfortunately, instead of penitence, the effects of solitary confinement became more of a cruel form of torture.

In 1787, a society of well-known and powerful Philadelphians who were concerned with the ways prisons were run in America at the time established a board to address the issue of incarceration and punishment. One of the Philadelphians in this group, Benjamin Rush, proposed a prison that focused on obtaining genuine regret and penitence in a criminal’s mind. This was a very questionable proposal due to the difficulty in controlling what happens in another person’s mind. Eastern State Penitentiary first opened as a system to push the inmate towards self-reflection and change. 

As a method to prevent the prisoners from interacting with any other inmates or guards, they were only outside their cells on their entry and exit from prison and were hooded while out. Yet within a few years after opening, the prison was soon modified to make space for a rapidly increasing flow of inmates into Eastern State. As Eastern State Penitentiary gained recognition, a debate formed between Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens about whether it was humane to hold inmates in such extreme conditions. Charles Dickens was absolutely shocked by the conditions of the inmates that he observed. Dickens wrote in his journal, "dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair...The first man...answered...with a strange kind of pause...fell into a strange stare as if he had forgotten something” (Biggs Solitary Confinement: A Brief History). The prisoner that Dickens observed was most likely suffering from the effects of what would be diagnosed by twenty-first century psychologists as anxiety, paranoia or depression. Yet despite the obvious signs of mental deterioration of inmates being held in solitary confinement, the practice continued to be used and spread to many other prisons throughout the country.

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, stated that “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition...while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity” (Sullivan Solitary Confinement in US Prisons). Solitary confinement has been proven to be unhealthy for an inmate’s psyche (Grassian Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement). In 2006, in one study conducted by Stuart Grassian, a certified psychiatrist and former member at Harvard Medical School, hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement from the state penitentiary in Walpole, Massachusetts were interviewed. His report contained statistical proof that solitary confinement caused increased physical morbidity and mortality as well as a much higher probability of insanity. 

In one case, an inmate in a Texas prison (Reichard The Horrifying Truth of Life in Solitary Confinement), was placed into solitary confinement and removed from the general prison population for attempted suicide in 2005. Despite being diagnosed for bipolar disorder, he was still forced into solitary confinement “where self-harm is eight times more likely and suicide five time more frequent than in the general prison population” (Reichard The Horrifying Truth of Life in Solitary Confinement). It does not make sense that the Texas prison had placed him in solitary confinement with his conditions known to them. The horrible conditions of solitary confinement remains an unaddressed issue that is presently getting worse.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas states that there are more than 6,500 Texas prisoners, some of which with preexisting mental health issues, are living within solitary confinement cells. Also, a study conducted by the American Psychological Association states that being “deprived of normal human interaction, many prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.(Weir Alone, in ‘the hole’).” Despite these facts, more and more inmates are being put into the special housing unit and being isolated from interactions with any other humans.

The prison system at Eastern State Penitentiary was completely discontinued in 1913 due to the practical need to house more prisoners. Solitary confinement, originally developed as a sort of rehabilitation and repentance, is being used in prisons all over the country in order to punish and control inmates. This method of punishment is being adopted by more prisons and the length of time that prisoners are being forced to stay in isolation has only increased. Despite the controversy surrounding solitary confinement, there have been no advancements to advocate for prisoner’s rights in these conditions. Originating from the isolation in Eastern State Penitentiary, the current day solitary confinement has only increased its terrible effects on inmates.

Works Consulted

Biggs, Brooke Shelby, Photo By Adam Shemper, Jennifer Gonnerman, William D. Hartung, Jenny Luna, and Tom Philpott. "Solitary Confinement: A Brief History." Mother Jones. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

"Eastern State Penitentiary." General Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Grassian, Stuart. "Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement." The American Journal of Psychiatry. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Reichard, Raquel. "The Horrifying Truth of Life in Solitary Confinement, From People Who Lived It." Mic. N.p., 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Sullivan, Laura. "Timeline: Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Weir, Kirsten. "Alone, in ‘the Hole’." American Psychological Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

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