By David M. Shapiro
Pope Francis’ recent condemnation of supermax prisons as “a form of torture” added a powerful and persuasive voice to efforts to make U.S. prisons more humane. Although Illinois closed the Tamms supermax prison last year, solitary confinement continues to be used far too often throughout the prison system.
Illinois policymakers need to pay attention to the pope’s warning that solitary can cause “psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and a significantly increased chance of suicide.” He exhorted all people, regardless of their faith, “to struggle . . . to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty.”
Solitary confinement, a practice exemplified by supermax prisons, means locking a man or woman up in a small cell, generally alone and with no window, for 23 if not 24 hours a day. As the pontiff noted, it is well documented in the mental health literature that caging a human like this can cause crippling mental illness.
Sarah Shourd, a journalist who was held in solitary confinement in Iran and who recently spoke to my students at Northwestern, describes solitary like this: “In prolonged isolation, the human psyche slowly self-destructs. On my worst days, I screamed and beat at the walls. I experienced hallucinations — bright flashing lights and phantom footsteps — nightmares, insomnia, heart palpitations, lethargy, clinical depression, and passive suicidal thoughts. I would pace my cell incessantly, or crouch like an animal by the food slot at the bottom of my cell door, listening for any sound to distract me.”
Contrary to popular myth, solitary confinement is not reserved for the worst of the worst. A study of solitary confinement in Illinois by the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice revealed that most prisoners are isolated for minor disciplinary violations, like insolence, failure to report to a work assignment or skipping a class. And taxpayers are left to foot the bill — solitary is tens of thousands of dollars more expensive per prisoner than housing in general population.
Illinois should heed the pontiff’s message. Although the infamous Tamms supermax has been shuttered, solitary confinement abuses remain common. Prisoners living with mental illness in the solitary confinement units at Pontiac Correctional Center report that they receive “talking tickets” for talking to themselves — they are disciplined, and their period in solitary prolonged, due to the very symptoms of their illness. At Menard, prisoners are doubled up in cells so small that there is enough space for one prisoner to pace back and forth only if the other prisoner is lying in the double bunk. And the feds, who already operate the notorious Florence Supermax in Colorado, have plans to open a new one in Thomson, Illinois.
Yet for some, the cruelty of solitary confinement is difficult to recognize because it leaves marks on the psyche rather than the skin. This is the core of Francis’ message: solitary is “a form of torture.” It’s time for Illinois to listen.
David M. Shapiro is a clinical assistant professor of law at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law
This op-ed column originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on November 3, 2014 where it is available by clicking here.