Creating Monsters: How Solitary Confinement Hurts the Rest of Us

April 18, 2014

You need to watch only the first five minutes of Solitary Nation, the first of two Frontline documentaries that will air on PBS starting Tuesday. The inmates, corrections officers, and prison bureaucrats all appear stooped and burdened, tamped down, by the oppressive nature of the place in which they spend the bulk of their lives. That’s what prison is, of course, but Frontline captures something deeper here.

“This is what they create in here, monsters,” one inmate tells Frontline’s reporters. “You can’t conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal.”

“It’s like being buried alive,” another prisoner says off camera.

Now, every inmate in the history of the world likely has complained about the conditions of his confinement. But the point of the film, I think—and perhaps the best argument against the continued use of solitary—is that regardless of how inmates feel about it, there is no redeemable value to it to the rest of us.

Solitary confinement surely makes prisons safer—that’s the argument wardens use over and over again to justify its continued use. But it also creates or exacerbates mental illness in the men who are condemned to it. And that illness, in turn, pushes inmates in solitary to engage in harmful or self-harming conduct that, in turn, prompts a severe disciplinary response from prison officials.

That, in turn, causes the men to turn deeper into their own insanity. And then these broken men are released back into the world without adequate mental health treatment or “step down” services that will help reduce their chances of recidivism. It’s a cycle everyone recognizes but cannot seem to change. It’s madness upon madness.

Adam Brulotte, one of the inmates featured in the film, gets caught in this cycle. He’s a young man who says he wants to study for his GED so he can get a real job, instead of selling drugs, when he is released. Because he has broken the rules, he is placed in isolation. And because he is in isolation, he goes mad. And because he goes mad, he breaks more rules. The prison is safer but we see Brulotte broken before our eyes. If this young man is not treated now, how much will the rest of us pay when he is ultimately released?

You don’t have to sympathize with the inmates featured in this documentary to appreciate just how broken the prison system is today. Solitary Nation is a valuable addition to the growing body of work that slowly is pushing America away from this form of confinement. It shows the blood and the feces and the numbing foulness of solitary for humanizing both prisoner and guard, and it chronicles the ambiguities that exist in these cases (is the inmate truly mentally ill or just faking it?).

There are, however, a few critical elements missing from the documentary. Because the stage is set in Maine, I guess, there is virtually no reference to the oppressive racial component to solitary confinement (or to American prisons more generally). Almost every single one of the faces that appears on film is white. Perhaps this means that white viewers will more fully empathize with what they are seeing. But I’d love for the journalists who created Solitary Nation to undertake the same sort of project in a southern prison.

Nor is there any insight in the film into the enormous political and financial pressures that coalesce around prisons. Even progressive wardens like Rodney Bouffard in Maine, who comes off in the documentary as a reasonable man trying to make the best of a bad situation, must negotiate with officials of the guards’ union in order to effect changes that might impact prison security. And even the harshest wardens must beg for funds from state lawmakers. These dynamics drive prison policies. They are an inescapable part of the story.

Nor did the film even attempt to offer broad answers to the many questions that surround the use of solitary confinement today. Why are lawmakers continuing to endorse policies and practices that make men mad and then toss them out onto a largely unsuspecting society? Why is there political reluctance to provide adequate mental health care to inmates, even when there is such strong evidence that it saves money (and perhaps lives)? The film raises many smart and poignant questions but sadly does not answer them.

The next installment in this series, Prison State, will air the final week of April, and perhaps viewers will get some answers then. But of course if there were easy answers here, the scandal of solitary confinement would not exist today. When I watched Solitary Nation the first time, I brought to it all of the prison stories I have covered over the past few years. When I watched it a second time, with someone who has not been so immersed, I saw the dread creep up over his face. Good, I thought, it’s long past time that America saw the horror of all this.

It’s not just the immorality of the solitary confinement that shines through in this worthwhile film. It’s the futility of it. Frustration and despair hang over the characters the way that fetid, stagnant air hangs in the tiny, soulless cells that host the 80,000 or so men and women living and dying today in solitary confinement in America. Both captive and captor seem to understand, as they interact amid the blood and the shit and the anguish, that its use is not just inhumane but utterly self-defeating.

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