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"Solitary" (The Survey)

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[page 9]

on November 10 he had been returned from the hospital to solitary; and that he had been transferred to the hospital again on November 22.


What is the theory underlying solitary confinement? In pietistic communities, where prisons are apt to be harsher than elsewhere, men were formerly placed in solitary in the belief that they needed an opportunity to commune with their God, and that such communion, to be effective, had to be silent and alone. This belief ran counter, of course, to the practice of the churches in those communities where God was worshiped publicly by groups. Today we do not resort to such ecclesiastical camouflage. Solitary confinement is punishment, pure and simple.

Undoubtedly it is an effective aid to administration. It is the keeper’s friend, par excellence. He uses it, much as a machinist uses oil, to keep the machinery of his routine running smoothly. If a disobedient prisoner can be placed at once in solitary, where food is shoved into him and no communication with others is possible, the troubles of the warden are at an end. A man cannot be insolent to his tin cup and the bricks of his wall are unmoved by profanity.

But what, meanwhile, is it doing for the prisoner? A friendly officer advised me, before I spent my night in solitary, to put myself into the state of mind of a sulky child. I tried, but found that the state of mind of a sulky child had apparently become impossible to me some twenty years ago. Unfortunately, there are no prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth under twenty-one years of age. Doubtless a few of these had children’s minds, but solitary confinement is not restricted to them. I have yet to find the man who thinks that he was placed in solitary justly. Such men may exist; in the course of a year in a large prison they may not be altogether infrequent. But for the most part men who are sent to solitary nurse permanent grudges against those who sent them there. It is safe to say that many a professional career of crime has begun in the embittered feelings produced by solitary confinement.

Some men subjected to this punishment resent it as they would resent the whip. To such men the very presence of solitary cells in a prison is a taunt and an insult. They may not think straight; they may forget that not all men are alike, and that some apparently need a greater measure of physical coercion than others. But for themselves they cannot be mistaken. Moreover, it has never yet been proved, so far as I know, that men who are capable of being won to better ways of living have been permanently so won by physical indignities. They may have been on by the disgrace and ostracism that sometimes accompany physical indignity, but the indignity itself is another question. And in prisoner no disgrace attaches to going to the “hole,” so far as one’s social equals are concerned.

The method of solitary confinement is the method of the bludgeon. It has no delicacy or finesse. It does not ask, “Why was this man insolent?” or “Why did that man refuse to work?” or “Why did this man disobey?” It merely establishes the fact and then imposes the penalty. It commits the age-old blunder of making the penalty fit the offense and not the offender. It does not seek the causes of prisoners’ misconduct. It forgets that men are in prison largely because they have not found it easy to conform to social custom. It forgets that many of them are inadequate personalities, men whose emotions are unstable, whose minds are unformed, whose hands have not acquired the habit of regular work. And it expects them to be able suddenly to live up to a routine far more rigorous than any imposed upon them outside.

To be sure, prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth are tried before they are sent to solitary confinement. They are given a chance to defend themselves. But the trial is conducted by a disciplinarian, the executive officer. Three men have held this position in the past six months, none of whom knows anything of psychiatry and the underlying causes of misconduct. The purpose of the trials is to establish the naked question of guilt or innocence. One of these officers boasted to me that he had tried two hundred and fifty men in an afternoon. No office charged with the discipline of men at the Fort Leavenworth Barracks ever spent five minutes in a solitary cell. I doubt if any of them ever tried to imagine the effect upon the human mind of days and nights spent unoccupied in dark, cramped, vermin-ridden solitary confinement.

There is an excellent department of psychiatry and sociology at the barracks, at present in the hands of a noted psychiatrist, Colonel King. Dr. King and his staff have not yet concerned themselves with the uses of solitary confinement, but, as the scope of the department widens, ultimately it may have charge of punishment/. That, however, will call for a revolution in military institutions.

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In a second article on Fort Leavenworth, Mr. Lane will describe some of the conditions under which the main body of prisoners live.

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