The US has a long history of using solitary confinement en masse as a weapon for controlling its prisoner population, which is the largest in the world, and among the highest per head of population. Prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for years on end, often simply because the prison cannot keep control of its oversized population. One American prisoner was recently released after spending a staggering 40 years in solitary confinement, while another remains imprisoned after 43. There are estimated to be as many as 80,000 prisoners held in solitary housing units, or SHUs.
Previously, confinement could be used if inmates were believed to be gang members, with no proof required and little appeal offered. Once in solitary, these offenders could be kept there indefinitely. SHUs will still be used to segregate those who are violent within the prison, but no longer indefinitely.
Solitary confinement is deliberately cruel. American SHUs are designed to reduce stimulation to a minimum, keeping prisoners away from human contact and allowing them only an hour’s exercise each day. Prisoners are often left with only a few books to read, and no television or radio. Contact with guards and visitors is limited, and takes place behind mesh and glass. This has been found to be incredibly detrimental to prisoners’ mental health, causing effects that include anxiety and depression, and can go as far as inducing psychosis, major perceptual distortions and self-harm. These symptoms can start to appear after as little as a few months. It is no surprise that so many are kept in solitary confinement indefinitely: after years in these conditions, many inmates simply become too dangerously unbalanced to be safe to release.
We use solitary confinement in New Zealand, but to nowhere near the same extent. Prisoners can be put in solitary as a punishment, or in cases where it is deemed to be necessary for their safety. Corrections rules require that prison directors “manage the prisoner off the segregation at the earliest opportunity”, and a segregation order expires after 14 days, at which point the prison must renew the order or return the prisoner to the general population. Segregation orders can’t be continued for more than three months without an application to a judge, and only then in further three-month periods.
That’s not to say that we haven’t had issues with our use of it here. Last year a report by a UN committee singled out some of New Zealand’s newly-built solitary units, calling them “tin cans”.
The late Peter Williams QC wrote an excellent article on the subject in 2012, in response to a 2010 case where an inmate in solitary confinement fatally punched a guard who was releasing him for his hour of exercise. He noted that it was uncertain exactly how many prisoners were being kept in solitary in New Zealand, and that it was very hard to gain access to these prisoners themselves. He quotes a letter from a prisoner, who observes that these practices do nothing but harm:
"Prisoners are driven over the brink by their dreary, monotonous routine. Each prisoner is contained in a small concrete box with no windows, with nothing to do, and where nothing constructive or rehabilitative is given. Sometimes they react irrationally - each prisoner is kept in these conditions for 23 hours a day."
Even with more moderate use this punishment seems to do more harm than good. These prisoners are kept away from rehabilitation services, and instead punished in a way that may only make them more dangerous.