Dane County, Wis., Sheriff David Mahoney stands in a solitary confinement cell at the county jail. An advocate for the mentally ill, Mahoney says he sometimes has to lock certain inmates in these cells even though he calls the conditions "inhumane." Credit: Morry Gash / AP

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Jocelyn Royalty is a junior at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she studies psychology and creative writing.

In one of the most memorable scenes of Jordan Peele’s acclaimed movie “Get Out,” protagonist Chris Washington is hypnotized by the white mother of his girlfriend and plunged to the “sunken place.” In this abyss, he watches, helpless, as he is controlled. The scenario feels fantastical.

Yet in his 2013 essay, California inmate Cesar Villa wrote that solitary confinement was, “a world unto itself where cold, quiet and emptiness come together, seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind.” He’d stumbled into a real-life sunken place — one that countless prisoners are being relegated to across the country despite the inhumanity of the practice.

Villa’s account is far from unusual. In the U.S., solitary confinement began in 1829 as an experiment. The practice grew in popularity despite concerns about inmate safety being raised as early as 1890. Now, tens of thousands of prisoners are subjected to this treatment every day despite the obvious cruelty involved. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with roughly 1.8 million prisoners being held as of 2020. Of those, the Prison Policy Initiative estimates that each day, about 80,000 people are in solitary confinement.

The circumstances in these isolated settings are, as Villa affirms, abysmal. So are the consequences. A 2020 study shows that premature death is more likely in those who have been held in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement often comes with manifold adverse physical and psychological risks — consequences that are even  more common in Black people, who make up a disproportionate share of both the solitary confinement population, and the prison population in general.

Last month, a Georgia lawsuit brought against the state’s Department of Corrections claimed that those in solitary were being deprived of basic rights, citing vermin-infested cells and complete social exile. “Without immediate action to address these unconstitutional and immoral conditions, more people are likely to die,” says attorney Alison Ganem for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit.

Recent research suggests that the sunken places of prison breed hypervigilance and suspicion, cognitive delays, emotional disturbances, PTSD — and the list goes on. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment recorded an increase in learned helplessness in their “inmates,” wherein prisoners resign themselves to the belief that guards — or hypnotists — have ultimate control over their lives. This feeling of helplessness is not without grounds: prison guards can be frequently abusive to those confined in solitary, with multiple incidents of fatal guard brutality on record.    

With the mounting evidence about the harm of solitary confinement, one might think that the institution would be well on its way to obsolescence. Yet the practice is still a hallmark of American punishment. In fact, “supermax” prisons — high-security facilities where inmates are isolated indefinitely — have multiplied in the recent past. Although some prison systems have strived to reform confinement practices (like the Maine Department of Corrections, which in 2012 managed to reduce its number of solitary prisoners from 91 to 46 in just 18 months), these endeavors are a far cry from the concerted effort required to rid the U.S. of solitary confinement altogether.

It is painfully clear that a change needs to be made. Luckily, scholars and prisoners alike have been thinking of alternatives for quite some time. The PREA Resource Center suggests community-specific housing as a cost-effective, rehabilitative, stand-in for solitary. The New York prison system implemented a clinical alternative to confinement for mentally ill inmates in 2013. This kind of reform, especially if standardized, gives prisoners back the autonomy that isolation strips from them. It reaches a hand into that sunken place, and pulls them closer to the surface, if not completely out of the depths.

As pro-confinement speakers argue, dangerous people must be separated from the general population. To let a serial killer roam free is irresponsible. The truth, though, is that very few people in the U.S. are imprisoned for Criminal Minds-style offenses. In fact, the vast majority of imprisoned individuals are there on larceny/theft charges — nonviolent offenses that in no way warrant the brutality of solitary confinement. This, in addition to the prison industry’s tendency to over-punish Black inmates, is evidence of a system broken beyond repair.

As Chris is hypnotized in “Get Out,” his exterior remains calm. Only inside the sunken place can his screams be heard, the noise deadened in the void. The pain suffered in solitary confinement is mostly silent, too. It’s mostly invisible to the free public. We, as a national community, must listen closely for the muffled voices of confined inmates. And, once we hear those voices, we must help lift them from the darkness.