Sunday, March 29, 2009


"Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?" — The Bet by Anton Chekhov
There is something about the name SuperMax that seems so doublespeak. There is something about our idea of punishment that seems so primitive. There is something about solitary confinement that is, no doubt, torture:
After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.

One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it. After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic attack.
The story of Bobby Dellelo, told in this penetrating New Yorker article, is not unique. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in solitary confinement -- confined to a cell for at least twenty-three hours a day without experiencing any physical human contact.

Before you react with the worn-out argument that solitary confinement provides discipline and deterrence, please do read that article. There are better strategies for dealing with the most violent criminals. The British have had success with providing prisoners with opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills.

I was going to end on the note that people are mostly hooked on vengeance and politicians can't succeed without some level of tough-on-crime posturing, but then I was impressed to read that Senator Jim Webb has introduced a new bill calling for prison reform. I wish him luck in this politically risky endeavor. He is not only up against private profit-driven companies but also a public faith in a counterproductive system.

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