In the United States alone, there are over 80,000 prisoners held in solitary confinement — and that number doesn’t even include those held in juvenile facilities, county jails, or immigration centers. If you factor in those excluded demographics, then the solitary population now is the same size as the entire prison population was 100 years ago.

Much has been written about the timeline and causes of the nation’s explosive growth in total prison population, but what about its solitary population? When did the U.S. start using solitary — and when did it become so popular with penal officials?

In the late 1700’s, Quakers built the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. It is considered by many to be the birthplace of the modern prison system. Later Philadelphia Quakers expanded their correctional efforts and built the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary. In the 1820’s Eastern State began experimenting with the use of solitary confinement, “based on a Quaker belief that prisoners isolated in stone cells with only a Bible would use the time to repent, pray and find introspection.”

However, as other facilities began using solitary confinement, problems became immediately apparent. According to The Nation, “When Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831 to research the American penitentiary system, a primary stop was New York’s Auburn Prison, which had recently conducted an ‘experiment’: locking eighty prisoners in round-the-clock isolation for a year. Some had gone insane, while others attempted suicide; five had died, apparently from a combination of ill health and pure despair. Of the twenty-six prisoners who were subsequently released, fourteen quickly reoffended, offering ‘proofs,’ according to Tocqueville and Beaumont, ‘that this system, fatal to the health of the criminals, was likewise inefficient in producing their reform.’”

A few decades later, in an 1890 Supreme Court opinion regarding the results of using solitary confinement on prisoners in Philadelphia’s Eastern State, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller wrote, “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; other still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

Given its negative long-term consequences, the use of solitary confinement was generally abandoned for almost a century. Then, in 1989, the state of California built the notorious Pelican Bay facility, generally considered the nation’s first supermax. The facility had no yard, mess hall, classrooms, or shops; all inmates simply spent 22.5 hours a day in their 8-by-10 cells.

By 1999, the DOJ found that 30 states utilized extreme isolation facilities in which the inmates were in lockdown 23 hours a day.



3 thoughts on “From Hell: A Brief History of Solitary Confinement

  1. Being from South Jersey originally, the Easter State Penitentiary is a place I’m somewhat familiar with. And I recognized it immediately when it was used in a scene for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Of course, because of its reputation, it has since become a major attraction around Halloween as it’s turned into a haunt at that time of the year.

    However, the prison is said to be haunted in real life. Considering all the negative energy and the pain and suffering endured in that place, I do believe that it has stored up a huge amount of negative psychic energy that has left behind a sort of after-image that manifests itself from time to time, especially to people who are sensitive to that sort of thing.

    The most famous story tthat sticks out in my mind was that of a locksmith who was assigned to remove the locks on the doors as the pentitentiary was being rennovated for tours. He said he saw a human figure moving towards him that turned into smoke and shot up to the ceiling. As he looked, he saw hundreds of catlike eyes starting at him, and whispering disembodied voices that said, “We’re watching you!”

    From a historical standpoint, it’s been said that the Quakers weren’t responsible for the punishments the inmates experienced; that they were actually thought up later by the staff and guards. And Charles Dickens himself visited the prison once, describing the conditions as appalling, and the the inmates there were practically “buried alive.”

    1. The Quakers may not have been responsible for some of the punishments, but the solitary confinement was their idea. Ironically, the AFSC — a Quaker group — is now one of the major opponents of the use of solitary.

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