If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?
So asks Atul Gawande, writing in the New Yorker. In his article "Hellhole," Gawande looks at studies (of monkeys tested in isolation and prisoners of war) that show how solitary confinement—a relatively new corrections tactic—produces individuals given to either greater violence or greater insanity.
Gawande points to the story of Terry Anderson, an American journalist held hostage by Hezbollah for seven years, to illustrate the inescapable mental meltdown that can overwhelm even the sanest among us:
In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.
“I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”
One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.
If such derangement can overcome a lucid journalist, Gawande asks, how are prisoners, including many whose lucidity is already under question, expected to emerge from such an ordeal with any chance of becoming productive members of society?
England has developed an alternative. Instead of banishing its most dangerous prisoners to cells by themselves, some English prisons have created pods for small groups of prisoners (no more than 10), where they receive mental health treatment, opportunities for exercise, and, more importantly, real human interaction—perhaps the only true catalyst for rehabilitation. To date, the results have been very positive.
Human contact is not only the lens through which we see ourselves, but it is that handle we can grasp onto when insanity and hopelessness threaten to reduce us to animals. From a Christian perspective, human contact is usually the vehicle through which God chooses to reveal himself to us. It's safe to say that "it is not good for a man to be alone," is not reserved solely for the marriage relationship.
Robert Felton, who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, said he wouldn't wish his agony on even his worst enemies, even upon the prison director he once dreamt of killing. Gawande asked Felton, if this director were somehow to find himself in solitary confinement, how he would treat him.
“I’d let him out,” he said, and he put his fork down to make the point. “I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.”