National Geographic Explorer Examines the Human Cost of "Solitary Confinement"
On any given day, more than 80,000 Americans are in solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation. The National Geographic Explorer series entry “Solitary Confinement” focuses on Colorado State Prison, a maximum security facility that houses 756 inmates in solitary confinement, some for decades. Prisoners are sent there from other facilities when they are deemed unmanageable (e.g., they are involved in gang activities or have attacked guards). Administrative segregation is the toughest disciplinary tool in the American prison system.
Based on the concept of penitence and reform through isolation, solitary confinement was—for the most part—abandoned in 1913, largely because it resulted in more damage than penance. It is believed that isolation causes severe behavioral problems, and that the people most likely to be put into isolation are the ones who will be most seriously damaged by the experience. Isolation increases impulsive behavior; it’s impulsive behavior that sends a prisoner to isolation in the first place.
“Solitary Confinement,” narrated by the ever-reliable Peter Coyote, explores the experiences of a handful of prisoners, and features interviews with prison and mental health authorities. As one would expect, the prison authorities defend the use of solitary because there are no alternatives and the mental health authorities deplore it for its dehumanizing, demoralizing effects.
Oh, to be a bleeding-heart liberal or a coldhearted conservative. Then one can be on the solid ground of either condemning the practice or embracing it as fitting consequences to bad behavior. This would mean, of course, that either the administrative problems or the human factor must be ignored. When we view society as a system, we need to include all elements. It’s not easy being a humanist.
“Solitary Confinement” is a provocative, although superficial, look at a situation that is not widely covered. Interestingly, it does not discuss the economic aspects of solitary confinement. Viewing the facilities and the manner in which services are delivered, one can only speculate on the high costs involved in keeping people in 8x10 cells, completely isolated from human communication and touch, for 23 hours a day. “Solitary Confinement” is available streaming from NetFlix, among other outlets.