People Who Need People

The notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from two maximum security prisons in Mexico before he was extradited to the U.S. and charged with a host of drug trafficking and related crimes. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life imprisonment. His next stop: the so-called “supermax” federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, known as ADX (for Administrative Maximum Facility). Built in 1994, ADX currently houses some of the nation’s most notorious felons, including the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Terry Nichols, accomplice to Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing; Robert Hassen, a former FBI agent turned Russian mole; and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. No one has ever escaped from this lock-up.

To be sentenced to ADX is effectively to be buried alive – not literally, of course, but buried as assuredly as if you had been thrown six feet under. Prisoners spend 23 hours per day alone in a cramped cell with a bed, desk and stool made of poured concrete, as well as a toilet, sink and shower. There is a narrow slit for a window and a slot in the door through which all meals are served. Human contact of any kind is minimal, and the cells are soundproof to prevent unauthorized communications with other prisoners. A former warden recalled that at ADX there was “no noise, no mess, no prisoners walking the hallways.” He characterized it as “a clean version of hell.”

People go crazy in places like this. Indeed, one forensic psychiatrist estimated that 70% of the inmate population in ADX suffers from at least one serious mental illness, exacerbated by the fact that many have been taken off psychotropic medications or otherwise denied treatment. Initially greeted as a humane alternative to corporal punishment, solitary confinement has been recognized as a contributor to insanity and suicide since the 19th century. Research has linked prolonged isolation to anxiety, depression, anger and various cognitive and perceptual distortions, as well as more serious disturbances, such as paranoia and psychosis.

After falling out of favor for decades, solitary confinement was revived as a control measure in the 1980s following the murder of two prison guards by members of the Aryan Brotherhood at a state penitentiary in Illinois. According to Amnesty International, more than 40 states now operate supermax prisons, along with the federal government. As might be expected, human rights organizations take a dim view of such facilities, arguing that use of prolonged isolation as a control device is inhumane.

Why does solitary confinement make you crazy? The short answer is that we are by nature social animals, as Aristotle observed long ago. He further noted that an unsocial individual is either “a beast or a god.” Aristotle, of course, knew nothing of evolution or brain science, but we are in fact hard-wired to be this way, instinctively seeking out the company of others. Infants only days old already show signs of social awareness. We are equipped with “mirror” neurons in the brain that enable us to empathize with others when we observe their actions. We have an innate ability to understand the actions and intention of others. The default mode of human behavior is not our identities as individuals but our group identities, which develop well before we show any signs of self-awareness. Take away the company of others and our brains quickly go haywire. We become the “beasts” that Aristotle had warned us about.

“It is not good that the man should be alone,” the Lord God said in the biblical creation story, having made only one of him. And so he set about creating a companion, which led to problems of a different sort. But at least none of them were attributable to the effects of solitude. Plenty of inmates at ADX displayed beastly behavior before they wound up in solitary confinement, but that was usually because they insisted on putting “me” before “we.”

Genesis 2:18

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