The following essay by Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway appears in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, which also includes an excellent story on the difficulties involved in reporting on prisons in general. For more on prison media policies, see our accompanying article by Rachel M. Cohen.
Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units are our domestic black sites—hidden places where human beings endure unspeakable punishments, without benefit of due process in any court of law. On the say-so of corrections officials, American prisoners can be placed in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for months, years, or even decades.
At least 80,000 men, women, and children live in such conditions on any given day in the United States. And they are not merely separated from others for safety reasons. They are effectively buried alive. Most live in concrete cells the size of an average parking space, often windowless, cut off from all communication by solid steel doors. If they are lucky, they will be allowed out for an hour a day to shower or to exercise alone in cages resembling dog runs.
Most have never committed a violent act in prison. They are locked down because they’ve been classified as “high risk,” or because of nonviolent misbehavior—anything from mouthing off or testing positive for marijuana to exhibiting the symptoms of untreated mental illness.
A recent lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in adx, the federal supermax in Florence, CO, described how humans respond to such isolation over the long-term. Some “interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells” or carry on “delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads.” Some “mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, and writing utensils” or “swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass, and other dangerous objects.” Still others “spread feces and other human waste and body fluids throughout their cells [and] throw it at the correctional staff.” While less than 5 percent of US prisoners nationwide are held in solitary, close to 50 percent of all prison suicides take place there.
After three years of reporting on solitary confinement for Solitary Watch, a website I co-founded, I’m convinced that much of what happens in these places constitutes torture. How is it possible that a human-rights crisis of this magnitude can carry on year after year, with impunity?
I believe part of the answer has to do with how effectively the nature of these sites have been hidden from the press and, by extension, the public. With few exceptions, solitary confinement cells have been kept firmly off-limits to journalists—with the approval of the federal courts, who defer to corrections officials’ purported need to maintain “safety and security.” If the First Amendment ever manages to make it past the prison gates at all, it is stopped short at the door to the isolation unit.