On his way to pick up his grandmother from a dialysis appointment, Lamar Johnson was pulled over because officers thought the tinting on his windows was too dark. During the stop, officers found a years old outstanding warrant for check fraud, and Johnson was arrested and taken to prison.
Days after being placed in solitary confinement, Johnson was found near death hanging from a bedsheet in his cell.
What happened between being arrested for a non-violent offense and ending his life? It’s a question his family wants answered.
Life in Solitary Confinement
Across the country, as more and more stories like Johnson’s come to light, the public is recognizing the harmful, damaging, and often tragic effects of solitary confinement.
People can be placed in solitary confinement for any number of reasons – from minor infractions to more serious issues like endangering themselves or someone else. They can also be put in solitary for no apparent reason at all – the decision is largely left up to the guards and prison officials.
In solitary confinement, people are isolated in closed cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, bereft of human contact for months or years. The conditions of these cells are extremely unhealthy, and the psychological effect of isolation is traumatizing.
Cells are typically 60 to 80 square feet, illuminated by fluorescent light sometimes 24 hours a day with little if any outside light. Individuals are only released from their cells for an hour a day or, in some places, once a week for five hours, leaving them isolated for days on end.
As further punishment, incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement are generally barred from engaging in job training, education, or treatments that could rehabilitate them much more effectively than languishing in isolation.
A History of Solitary Confinement
The use of solitary confinement in the U.S. dates back more than 200 years. NPR.org found that the practice was first used at the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where people were isolated with only a bible in the hopes that they would take the time to reflect and repent. After many incarcerated individuals suffered harmful psychological effects, the penitentiary stopped the practice. Indeed, in 1890, the Supreme Court acknowledged solitary confinement’s negative effects.
Despite evidence of its harm dating back its first use, solitary confinement continues to plague our nation’s prisons and jails. A few states have passed limitations on solitary confinement for people with mental disabilities, but the practice goes largely unregulated with very little federal oversight and no centralized system for tracking outcomes.
Why Solitary Confinement Fails
Solitary confinement fails at keeping incarcerated individuals safe. Nearly one-third of all people in America’s prisons and jails already suffer from mental illness, which is only exacerbated by solitary confinement. Even in otherwise healthy people, solitary confinement can result in severe psychological damage. Many studies have documented the outcomes of solitary confinement, including:
- Lack of emotional regulation
- Increased suicide risk
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
In a 2014 study, the American Journal of Public Health found that people in solitary confinement, particularly young people and people with mental disabilities, were almost seven times more likely to engage in self-harm than the general population of New York City jails.In 2004, 73 percent of prison suicides occurred in solitary confinement units in California prisons in 2004 despite making up only 10 percent of the total prison population. In Indiana, the suicide rate in solitary confinement was nearly three times that of the general population. The numbers don’t lie.
The Social and Economic Costs of Solitary Confinement
People who’ve been held in solitary confinement leave prison mentally and psychologically compromised and experience high rates of recidivism. Therefore, solitary confinement becomes not just a traumatic experience for the incarcerated individual but can also pose a threat to public safety and public health.
Aside from costing lives, long-term isolation is expensive. According to a news release from Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, solitary confinement in one supermax prison can cost up to $60,000 a year per person compared to $22,000 for prisoners in the general population.
Prison Guard Abuse and Mistreatment
Prison officials are not trained mental health providers, and their methods frequently do more harm than good to these populations and the prison population as a whole. Incarcerated individuals often endure physical and psychological abuse, neglect and humiliation at the hands of prison guards.
A Department of Justice investigation of Alabama prisons found excessive use of force in 12 out of the 13 prisons it evaluated, including use of batons, chemicals, and physical abuse. These excessive uses of force resulted in at least two deaths. Describing one fatal incident, the DOJ found that the victim sustained multiple skull fractures to his nose, eye sockets, ears, and the base of his skull, causing extensive bleeding in multiple parts of his brain.
Prison guards frequently go unpunished for their crimes, enjoying immunity from the treatment they themselves dole out.
How You Can Help
Some states are waking up to the fact that solitary confinement doesn’t work and recognizing that prison abuse cannot be left unchecked. It’s time for the rest of the country to catch up.
The Fair Fight Initiative represents victims of prison guard abuse and unwarranted and harmful solitary confinement, crowd funding to support them in fighting back against prison brutality. The organization also raises awareness of these issues through advocacy campaigns.
If you’ve been a victim of mistreatment in prison, please submit an application for assistance. The Fair Fight Initiative receives many requests, so responses may be delayed.
Please consider donating to The Fair Fight Initiative helps contribute to a more just and equitable society that treats all human life as valuable.