These starving Virginia prisoners are not the first to identify that solitary confinement can rise to the level of torture.
In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens visited the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary and said: The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it...to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.
In an 1890 opinion , U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller made the following observation about prisoners held in solitary confinement: 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; others 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.
Sadly, we have not learned our history lesson when it comes to the damaging and ineffective results of solitary confinement. In fact, from 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40 percent compared to 28 percent.
In a 2009 New Yorker article that brought solitary confinement to national attention, Atul Gawande described the personal stories of several people who were subject to long-term solitary confinement, including Terry Anderson (the American diplomat held for years in Lebanon), Senator John McCain, and prisoners of war in Yugoslavia. Gawande tellingly observed that none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. He also noted electroencephalogram, or EEG, studies going back to the 1960s have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after just a week of solitary confinement.
The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, a national bipartisan taskforce established in 2006, reported that among the dozens of studies on the use of solitary confinement conducted since the 1970s, there was not a single study of non-voluntary solitary confinement lasting more than 10 days that did not document negative psychiatric results in its subjects.
Nationally recognized expert Dr. Craig Haney, social psychologist and psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found extraordinarily high rates of symptoms of psychological trauma among prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement in his systematic analysis of prisoners held in supermax prison. More than four out of five of those evaluated suffered from feelings of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, troubled sleep, and lethargy or chronic tiredness, and over half complained of nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Nearly half suffered from hallucinations and perceptual distortions, and a quarter experienced suicidal ideation.
Citing scientific studies demonstrating the lasting mental harm caused by isolation in a presentation before the United Nations General Assembly in October 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez declared that solitary confinement can amount to torture and called for an absolute prohibition of prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, or NRCAT, a coalition of 315 religious organizations that have united to abolish torture, has launched a nationwide campaign to end prolonged solitary confinement. The question of whether someone should be punished is separate from whether we should, as a nation, permit punishment that is so severe it amounts to torture. When we analyze the latter question through the lens of faith, our answer is an unequivocal no.
Our faith traditions teach us that every human being possesses inherent dignity, a quality that does not disappear behind prison gates. Prolonged isolation violates individuals' God-given dignity by destroying prisoners' minds. More often than not, prisoners held in solitary confinement return to society as less functional human beings that are more likely to recommit crimes.
NRCAT has been vocal in its opposition to Virginia's overuse of prolonged solitary confinement, including urging Governor McDonnell to provide for independent experts to assist in the Virginia Department of Corrections' review into long-term solitary confinement. Independent review using expert data analysis methodology has been essential to successfully implementing alternatives to solitary confinement in other states like Mississippi, Illinois, and Colorado. These states and others have seen far less violence in prison and far less cost to taxpayers as a result of reforming their solitary confinement policies.
It is due time that all states, including Virginia, recognize that prolonged solitary confinement is a moral and fiscal price we cannot afford to pay.
Heather Rice is the director of U.S. Prisons & Police Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington D.C.