Against Solitary Confinement

We are not a brutal nation. This is a historical truth: that we are a people defined by "humanity." Yet the great irony of the term "humanity" is that, rather than kindness and peace and forgiveness, humans too often produce the opposite. Our criminal justice system is human -- all too human.

Ask any public defense lawyer. Our criminal justice scheme, far from being a Lockean contract preserving life, liberty and property, too often stifles life, narrows liberty, destroys the property necessary for both life and liberty. Its consequences hurt, especially, the poor and the black, wreaking havoc on the intersection -- the poor and the black.

But we don't care; in a sense, we don't have the opportunity to care, since prisoners are invisible. In ancient times we used exile to finesse this invisibility. Now we use penitentiaries. Though lawbreakers are extricated from our society, they still trudge along in a crueler sort of society amongst fellow inmates. They still taste social interaction, a necessary part of any meaningful human existence.

But not the 80,000 Americans languishing in solitary confinement.

These men, women, and (yes) children are held in square, sterile pens with barely any social interaction at all. In addition to the ignominy of being labeled felons and thus monsters, these people -- fellow Americans deserving full constitutional protection -- are treated as monsters.

Humans after all need social interaction; our minds depend on it as much as our bodies do water. To deny anyone social contact is to withhold the ability to be human. So in order to stuff prisoners into small square spaces for years at a time, to nonetheless persevere through the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneously affirming a Constitution banning inhumane punishments, we must deny inmates' humanity -- extricating them from the realm of Eighth Amendment protection. We must conceive sub-humans at best, monsters at worst.

Yet even the vilest criminals are thoroughly human. Their horrendous crimes -- killing, raping, assaulting -- as well as their minor ones -- drug use, petty larceny, trespass -- have proved unfortunate markers of humankind since our inception. Don't get me wrong: The most immoral prisoner has earned his government-sponsored home. Quite thoroughly. But by treating him in an inhumane manner that extends beyond confinement, we too become all too human. We too commit a moral wrong.

A criminal who hurts others degrades himself; a society that hurts others degrades itself. Let's avoid degrading either. For we -- and even criminals -- are worthy of more. For we -- and even criminals -- are fellow humans. To err is human, yes; but to forgive is human, too. After all, one praised for "showing some humanity" doles out forgiveness -- not condemnation.

When crafting a proper criminal justice scheme, we must heed Nietzsche's counsel: "Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster ... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Solitary confinement, like physical torture, brandings, forced manual labor, belongs to history's deepest abyss.

Because we are not a brutal nation: Confine solitary confinement to a solitary past.