Companionship or Death: The Torture of Solitary Confinement

Demonstrators hold posters at a news conference to announce a petition to the United Nations to intervene to stop California
Demonstrators hold posters at a news conference to announce a petition to the United Nations to intervene to stop California prisons from holding inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely, outside the Reagan State Building in Los Angeles Tuesday, March 20, 2012. About 4,200 inmates are held in isolation in California prisons, and attorney Peter Schey, not shown, says about 400 are represented in the petition. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

"Either companionship or death!" --Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a

This Talmudic cry points to the necessity of companionship for human life. Honi HaMa'agel, a Rip Van Winkle-like character, wakes from a long sleep to learn that his friends and family are long since gone. Life without companionship, he decides, is just not worth it. He chooses death over a life alone.

Can one imagine a life completely alone, with no meaningful human contact? Gabriel Reyes has been alone for more than 16 years. In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Reyes (a prisoner and former hunger striker at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California, imprisoned for life) describes a life of isolation and solitude. He eats alone and exercises alone in a cement enclosure he compares to a dog cage. He is not allowed phone calls and has not had physical contact with any member of his family since 1995. Reyes writes: "Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort -- for years on end. It is a living tomb."

On any given day in the United States, 80,000 prisoners are held in some form of isolation or solitary confinement. Rather than being a method for holding the worst prisoners, solitary confinement is often the punishment for infractions of prison rules, such as fighting, gang membership or obtaining contraband. Many of the mentally healthy who are placed in isolation develop psychological problems as a result. Inmates engage in self-mutilation, sit catatonic in their own waste, and demonstrate cognitive dysfunction, paranoia and depression. According to testimony presented in June by Dr. Craig Haney, a leading expert on solitary confinement, at the first ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, for many prisoners, "solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness." As Sen. Dick Durbin, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, which held the hearing, shared in his opening statement to that hearing, 50 percent of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.

Many prisoners and human rights activists consider solitary confinement to be a form of psychological torture -- or in other words, torture, in our own prisons, in our own country. The human cost is staggering. Sen. John McCain, who spent time alone as a POW in Vietnam, boils down the experience to its essence: "It's an awful thing, solitary, it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any form of mistreatment."

At the beginning of Genesis, we read: Lo tov heyot ha'adam l'vado -- "It is not good for the human to be alone" (2:18). From the very beginning of human existence, there is an awareness that people are social creatures, designed to be in community with others. The effects of being deprived of community are often irreversible. On June 19, I had the privilege of attending the Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. The most haunting testimony came from Anthony Graves, who served more than 18 years in a Texas prison before being exonerated of all crimes in 2010.

"Solitary confinement does one thing," he said. "It breaks a man's will to live, and he ends up deteriorating. He's never the same person again."

Graves described fellow inmates who gave up death sentence appeals simply to end the torment of their imprisonment.

Companionship or death.

Returned to society, Graves still suffers from the effects of his isolation, including physical pain and a fear of crowds. He cries when he tries to sleep.

Solitary confinement (and prison reform in general) is often not seen as a "Jewish" issue because we often don't see it directly impacting our communities and families. But it does. Let's not be naïve. Jews, too, serve time in prison and risk being placed in isolation. As Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps testified at the hearing, as 95 percent of those in prison are eventually released, the survivors of isolation (many of whom are released directly from solitary confinement into the outside world) are all around us.

As a community, we also cannot ignore the inhumane and degrading treatment of our fellow citizens. In our system of justice, being sent to prison is designed to be the punishment, not horrific conditions while in prison, of which isolation is the extreme. Graves testified at the hearing: "We as American citizens are driving other American citizens out of their minds." While it is important to respect the rights of crime victims and to ensure the safety of corrections officers, as Sen. Durbin said at the hearing: "What do America's prisons say about our nation and its values? ... We can have a just society and we can be humane in the process."

As Reyes wrote, "I understand I broke the law, and I have lost liberties because of that. But no one, no matter what they've done, should be denied fundamental human rights, especially when that denial comes in the form of such torture."

We have a moral obligation to uphold the dignity and the mental health of those currently incarcerated. The United States should do everything it can to reverse our nation's harmful and expensive reliance on solitary confinement.