Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units are our domestic black sites—hidden places where human beings endure unspeakable punishments, without benefit of due process in any court of law. On the say-so of corrections officials, incarcerated Americans can be placed in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for months, years, or even decades.
At least 80,000 men, women, and children live in such conditions on any given day in the United States. And they are not merely separated from others for safety reasons. They are effectively buried alive. Most live in concrete cells the size of an average parking space, often windowless, cut off from all communication by solid steel doors. If they are lucky, they will be allowed out for an hour a day to shower or to exercise alone in cages resembling dog runs.
The majority of these individuals have never committed a violent act in prison. They are locked down because they’ve been classified as “high risk,” or because of nonviolent misbehavior—anything from mouthing off or testing positive for marijuana to exhibiting the symptoms of untreated mental illness. Once isolated, they most quickly begin to deteriorate physically, psychologically, and socially. While less than 5 percent of U.S. prisoners nationwide are held in solitary, close to 50 percent of all prison suicides take place there.
After three years of reporting on solitary confinement for Solitary Watch, a website I co-founded, I’m convinced that much of what happens in these places constitutes torture. How is it possible that a human-rights crisis of this magnitude can carry on year after year, with impunity?
I believe part of the answer has to do with how effectively the nature of these sites has been hidden from the press and, by extension, the public. With few exceptions, solitary confinement cells have been kept firmly off-limits to journalists—with the approval of the federal courts, who defer to corrections officials’ purported need to maintain “safety and security.” If the First Amendment ever manages to make it past the prison gates at all, it is stopped short at the door to the isolation unit.
As a reporter, I ran into solitary confinement in writing an article about Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, members of the so-called Angola 3, who have lived in solitary confinement in Louisiana since 1972. When the prison denied me access, the ACLU of Louisiana took up my case, and I was finally granted what turned out to be the standard guided tour of the plantation prison. It included numerous dormitories, chapels, and even the death chamber—but not the solitary confinement units. Even the ACLU couldn’t help me penetrate those fortresses of solitude.
While reporting on solitary confinement in New York State, I was readily shown around Auburn Correctional Facility by the affable warden there. I saw all kinds of cells, yards, and workshops—everything but the so-called Special Housing Unit (SHU) where people are held in solitary. These units, I was told, are never shown to the media. At another New York prison, I managed to visit (under the watchful eye of a guard) with a man who has been in solitary for nearly 25 years. Since the Department of Corrections media policy forbids media visits to most prisoners in “segregation,” I had to withhold the fact that I was a reporter, and sign in as his “friend.”
Once I began reporting on solitary, I learned of a handful of other reporters who were encountering the same restrictions—and working around them and in spite of them: Shane Bauer in California, Susan Greene in Colorado, George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer in Illinois, Lance Tapley in Maine, and Mary Beth Pfeiffer in New York have all exposed the solitary suffering that takes place in supermax prisons and SHUs, usually without ever setting foot inside them. Instead, they have painstakingly searched public records and carried on lengthy correspondences with the men, women, and children who live in these gray boxes.
Where journalists have succeeded, one way or another, in penetrating the black sites, their reporting has undeniably had an impact. In Maine, it helped spark a grassroots movement and a legislative initiative, which eventually spurred the prison system to reduce its use of solitary confinement. In New York, it became ammunition in a battle to keep people with mental illness out of solitary. And in Illinois, it provided fuel for an effort that convinced the governor to shut down Tamms supermax prison.
The stories have been effective. But their scarcity also suggests that the lack of press access to these sites around the nation has stifled public debate on a significant issue of policy and human rights. “Solitary confinement is a brutal form of prison punishment that has claimed many lives and caused untold suffering,” says Mary Beth Pfieffer. “That is the story that officials do not want told.” Until we are allowed to tell it properly—until we can visit solitary units ourselves, and speak unhindered with the people who live and work there—we cannot fulfill our duty to shine a light into society’s darkest corners.