The Pelican Bay hunger strike has ended, but the conversation about solitary confinement must continue. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) must change its policies on solitary confinement for many persuasive reasons.  Some may point to the vast number of studies that have found long-term solitary confinement to be psychologically harmful. A 2003 UC Santa Cruz study, for example, found that months or years of isolation causes inmates to suffer from chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, despair, and irrational anger.
Some may rely on Aristotle’s argument that, by depriving a person of personal interaction, we rob him of the chance to rehabilitate himself into a virtuous citizen. Some will recall Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1826 finding that “absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”
Others may cite the 1890 Supreme Court opinion stating that prisoners subjected to solitary confinement became violently insane and committed suicide. Still others may be persuaded by the myriad accounts of former prisoners of war and hostages who describe losing their minds when subjected to solitary confinement. And others may quote the California prison psychiatrist who concluded, “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.”   In 2006, SHU units constituted 5 percent of California’s prison population but accounted for about half of inmate suicides. In 2005, SHU units accounted for almost 70 percent of suicides.
And some will no doubt be moved by the notion that solitary confinement violates basic notions of human decency, the constitution, and international human rights.
But we should all be concerned with California’s use of the SHU because the SHU undermines public safety. Inmates who spend lengths of time in solitary confinement are more likely to commit crimes in the future. People who have been cut off from human contact are ill- equipped to be productive members of our society, and the vast majority of inmates in solitary confinement will be released someday. In 2006, fully 95% of the inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay were scheduled for release. So, if psychological, philosophical, legal, and humanitarian concerns provide insufficient rationale, we should call on the CDCR to make changes if only in the interest of self-preservation.
  • To use solitary confinement only in exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible.
  • To prohibit the use of solitary confinement for prisoners suffering from mental illness and developmental disabilities.
  • To require regular mental health evaluations for prisoners in the SHU, and to require prompt removal of those who develop signs of mental illness.
  • To mitigate extreme isolation by allowing some human interaction with staff or others, and by allowing some access to the outside world in the form of books, magazines, television, radio, and other media.
  • And to fully prepare inmates who spent time in the SHU to reintegrate into the community.
 Hector Villagra is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.