The Silence of Solitude: America’s Weaponization of Restricted Housing Units

By: Nia Kaudo

If you follow testimonies about mass incarceration, you probably have been exposed to the term solitary confinement before. Solitary confinement is a popular term among the public, and though state and federal facilities refer to these isolated chambers as restricted housing units (RHU), segregated housing units (SHU), the men and women subjected to their darkness simply use “the hole”[1]. In the United States, capital punishment is still used to put convicted individuals to death, before which they are held in solitary confinement on Death Row. However, the horrifying housing practice is also used as a form of punishment for non-capital offenders and pre-trial detainees. Even minors in the United States can be placed in a solitary cell for disciplinary or unclear “administrative” reasons.[2]

Depending on the scale of the alleged offense and the discretion of correctional staff, a person can be held in the hole for periods of time lasting from days to weeks and in the most egregious cases decades.[3] The sizes of these cells vary by institution, but on average they are about 8 feet by 12 feet or the size of a parking spot with a toilet and whatever the facility qualifies as a bed.[4] According to Human Rights Watch, incarcerated people are stuck in these compartments for 22 to 24 hours a day.[5] Inside the cell most people who are incarcerated are not allowed normal visiting, telephone, or other privileges. Solitary Watch, an organization that focuses on issues regarding solitary confinement cites a Yale Law School report from 2014 that estimated that alone somewhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people in state prisons were held in restrictive housing.

Like most forms of punitive actions in the United States, Black Americans are disproportionately subjected to the use of restricted housing. On February 19th, 2016, Albert Woodfox was freed from Louisiana State Penitentiary after living in a 6 foot by 9-foot solitary cell for 43 years. He along with his friends Robert King and the late Herman Wallace served over a century combine in solitary confinement, for being wrongfully convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972. Supporters of the group known widely as “The Angola Three” (Louisiana’s State Prison reflects the origin of many enslaved people brought to the territory during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) assert that they were accused and convicted for their affiliation with the Black Panther Party. Woodfox is the only remaining US citizen who has ever spent that much time in solitary confinement.[6]

Activists, scholars, and medical professionals agree across the board that solitary confinement is detrimental to the mental health of all people after just a few weeks of that type of detainment.[7] Dr. Terry Kupers who has spent almost half a century interviewing people held in solitary told Time Magazine that “Human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity….The two things solitary confinement does is make people solitary and idle.”[8] Solitary confinement is inherently inhumane and goes beyond the parameters of cruel and unusual. The country must condemn this psychologically and physically violence practice and prove to its citizens that the prison system is what it professes to be, otherwise it is the public’s duty to force the ending of the use of solitary confinement in the United States.

[1] Drogin, Eric Y., and Carol S. Williams. “Solitary confinement: isolate the problem or leave well enough alone?” Criminal Justice, Fall 2016, p. 31+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A487433798/AONE?u=upenn_main&sid=AONE&xid=74b3d46e . Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/18/us-look-critically-widespread-use-solitary-confinement#_ftn4

[3] https://www.npr.org/2016/03/19/470828257/after-decades-in-solitary-last-of-the-angola-3-carry-on-their-struggle

[4] https://law.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/04/2017-HRC-DesignedToBreakYou-Report.pdf

[5] https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/18/us-look-critically-widespread-use-solitary-confinement#_ftn4

[6]  https://www.npr.org/2016/03/19/470828257/after-decades-in-solitary-last-of-the-angola-3-carry-on-their-struggle

[7] https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/03/01/solitary-confinement-and-mental-illness-us-prisons-challenge-medical-ethics

[8] http://time.com/3052468/what-28-years-of-solitary-confinement-does-to-the-mind/

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