Over 80,000 inmates in US state and federal prisons are currently housed in solitary confinement. Prisoners in solitary spend 23 hours a day in a room the size of a small bathroom. They receive meals through a slot in the cell door and eat alone near an open toilet; the places where they eat, sleep and defecate are only a few feet apart. Prisoners in solitary are forbidden to participate in prison programs and are deprived of nearly all human contact. They are allowed one hour out of their cells for exercise in an outdoor cage, often with no equipment. Life in isolation is characterized by extreme stress, and frequently leads to suicidal behavior. Prisoners refer to solitary as a place where they must struggle to hold onto their minds and their sense of identity, a place where they are treated as something "less than an animal."
Why is this form of confinement, known to cause a mental state akin to psychosis, commonly used in American prisons today? Solitary's powerful psychological impacts, caused in part by sensory and social deprivation, make this form of punishment a unique tool for exerting social control. Starting with the Quaker origins of solitary confinement in the eighteenth century, this book examines how solitary has been repeatedly viewed as a means of reprogramming the mind, of traumatizing a prisoner into adopting new beliefs. Solitary argues that CIA "brainwashing" research of the 1950s may have influenced the design of isolation units in American prisons.
Solitary also explores the reality of isolated confinement through interviews with women who have been imprisoned in long-term isolation units in New York State. The book reveals special dangers that women face in solitary, including sexual predation by guards.
Solitary is essential reading for specialists, activists, and the general reader alike.
"A pleasure to read, a marvelous book. The book is compelling, measured and steady in its tone, devastating in its ethical condemnation, well-researched, and elegant in its prose style. I think it is brilliant and beautiful." --Elizabeth Berger, psychiatrist and author
Joanne Pawlowski, a writer based in New York City, has worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch. She is a graduate of Princeton University and has a Master's degree in public administration from Harvard.
About Joanne Pawlowski
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Published December 20, 2013
History, Political & Social Sciences, Crime.