Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Marie Gottschalk is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in American politics, with a focus on criminal justice, health policy, race, the development of[…]

Perhaps at no other time in the present generation has prison reform been so close to the surface of our political consciousness. The “tough on crime” policies and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines of the 1990s have created a pattern of overly harsh punishments and a glut of private prisons, all but abandoning the rehabilitative function of the penal system. Today, that is slowly changing. In prohibiting juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons, President Barack Obama follows the advice of prison experts like Marie Gottschalk. Here she explains the “degrading and dehumanizing” harm caused by extreme isolation.

Marie Gottschalk: So solitary confinement, you’re in a cell 22 to 23 hours a day. I recently discovered in a number of states on the weekend you’re actually in the cell around the clock for the whole weekend. You don’t come out for meals. You have a slot in the door where your meals are given to you. There’s often very little that’s in your cell. Some states only allow you one book. Some allow a bookshelf worth of things. Some states no TV, no radio. Other states — all right. Many states restrict the number of visitors. The lack of any kind of human contact even when you have those visits. You’re typically allowed out for one hour a day of exercise, which some people say is kind of in a dog exercise yard because it’s a kind of pen that’s attached to the prison. If you want to do your exercise for an hour, that means you probably don’t have time for a telephone call or to take a shower. And you are literally kept in isolation, prolonged isolation from any human contact. Psychologists and other doctors who’ve studied this say that people decompose. They lose their mind. They begin, for example, if they’ve been so isolated for so long then they’re in human contact. Suddenly there can be the stimulation of just a fly in the room and they’ll be staring and looking at that fly and can’t concentrate because they’re overstimulated by that. In some solitary confinement, the lights are kept on all the time. People can be — a number in the South that don’t have any air conditioning so we’ve had a number of deaths in people in solitary and non-solitary because of excessive heat. It’s an unimaginable way of keeping people and it’s extraordinary. And when I tell people this, people think I’m making it up and the fact that we have tens of thousands of people at any one moment who are in this existence. And we’ve had some people who have spent literally decades in this existence in the United States.

So often when we talk about prisons and jails, we talk about the numbers, how many people in prison or how many people in jail. What we overlook is that we have some of the most degrading, dehumanizing prisons and jails in any developed country. The data that I have put together I would say based on recent reports we have about 89,000 to 120,000 people at any one time in solitary confinement. A recent report that came out from the Bureau of Justice Statistics says within the last year about 18 to 20 percent of the people in jail or prison have experienced solitary confinement at some point. So a much higher proportion of people is actually going through that even though at any one time it may be like between 3 percent and 14 percent of the state prison population. But many more people are being affected by it. To put some context into that, the UN rapporteur several years ago said anything more than 15 days in isolation is considered torture. And the UN is expected any day now to approve the new standard rules for the minimum treatment of prisoners, which haven’t been revised in almost half a century and they’re going to be renamed the Mandela rules. And one of the rules that the UN General Assembly is expected to approve is that prolonged solitary confinement is not acceptable, is not a standard, and that it should not be over 15 days and it shouldn’t be used for juveniles and it shouldn’t be used for the mentally ill at all. Not even a few days.