Image courtesy change.org

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Before the 1800s, prisons in the U.S. were unheard of and punishment for crime was in the hands of the community. Public hangings were the common rebuke for heinous crimes. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was the basic theory of justice.

When prisons replaced public punishment they represented a more civil approach to punishment with hopes of rehabilitation. The Quakers introduced solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitative punishment. Their intention for isolating inmates was originally pure and spiritual. The Quakers believed solitary confinement was an avenue for bringing offenders to a place of forgiveness from God.  

Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. It evolved into a punitive practice intended to break the spirits of defiant inmates that were difficult to control.  

The misunderstood philosophy was, a broken spirit eliminates threat. The truth is, a broken mind creates it.

A 59-year-old inmate by the name of Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore can attest to the philosophy. The last 28 consecutive years of his life have been spent in solitary confinement.     

Whitmore is incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where he spends 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. He was convicted of second degree murder. There is no crime that warrants punishment that deteriorates an individual’s mental and physical health. According to the Medill Justice Project, Whitmore’s eyesight has deteriorated and he has hypertension.

“Human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity. “By doing things we learn who we are and we learn our worth as a person. The two things solitary confinement does is make people solitary and idle,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a professor of psychiatry at the Wright Institute in Berkeley California, who has spent over 40 years interviewing thousands of solitary confinement prisoners.

So, why is this inhumane punishment still practiced in a contemporary society? Because correctional personnel is not trained in mental health and the easiest way to deal with incorrigible inmates is to ostracize them. Isn’t that the way society historically treats people who can’t be dealt with?   

The practice of solitary confinement can affect prisoners in different ways, but there are universal symptoms of being stashed away from the rest of the prison population and the world. Within three months of being locked-up with no human contact or stimulation inmates often experience high anxiety that can cause panic attacks, paranoia and disordered thinking, as well as anger and compulsive actions, like pacing or repeatedly cleaning the cell. Basic cognitive functions are also dulled.

How does this type of punishment make sense for someone who is already hostile and could have mental disorders?      

 Reading is the only activity allowed in solitary confinement. Some people on the outside would give anything to be alone with nothing to do but read. One would assume that if an inmate is allowed to read it could rehabilitate them. Think again. Reading is not pleasant after the mind has been tampered by solitary confinement. Inmates in solitary confinement have confessed to Dr. Kupers that they quit reading because they can’t remember what they read three pages before.

An inmate in solitary confinement experiences total loss of time clock function. Sleep patterns are significantly compromised because they are constantly exposed to artificial lighting and noise.  Natural daylight is extremely limited. The lack of mental and physical activity causes the brain to become lethargic and disoriented—and often inmates don’t recover from it.         

Integrating back into the general population of prison or the outside world is very difficult after being released from solitary confinement. The mind struggles to adapt to stimulation because of deprivation from normal activity. Jumping brain waves react to the shock of immediate exposure to a new environment. It is not uncommon for inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement to become agitated and jittery.      

Mr. Whitmore claims he has survived solitary confinement with a sound enough mind to take legal action against the prison’s practices because he considers himself a “thinker.” 

What about the majority of inmates that are not as mentally stable as Whitmore? They are being punished by an outdated method that qualifies as the most ineffective treatment for these troubled souls that could be inflicted on them.

Mr. Whitmore isis a voice for tormented victims of cruel and unusual punishment, which according to the U.S. Constitution, is illegal.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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