Solitary Confinement

by on July 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm in Law | Permalink

In the United States, approximately 100,000 prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. Colin Dayan reports:

Prisoners there are locked alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. Their food is delivered through a slot in the door of their 80-square-foot cell. They stare at unpainted concrete walls onto which nothing can be put. They look through doors of perforated steel, what one officer described to me as “irregular-shaped Swiss cheese.” Except for the occasional touch of a guard’s hand as they are handcuffed and chained when they leave their cells, they have no contact with another human being.

In this condition of enforced idleness, prisoners are not eligible for vocational programs. They have no educational opportunities; books and newspapers are severely limited; post and telephone communication virtually nonexistent. Locked in their cells for as many as 161 of the 168 hours in a week, they spend most of the brief time out of their cells in shackles, with perhaps as much as eight minutes to shower. An empty exercise room — a high-walled cage with a mesh screening overhead, also known as the “dog pen” — is available for “recreation.”

These are locales for perpetual incapacitation, where obligations to society, the duties of husband, father or lover are no longer recognized. An inmate wrote me, “People go crazy here in lockdown. People who weren’t violent become violent and do strange things. This is a city within a city, another world inside of a larger one where people could care less about what goes on in here. This is an alternate world of hate, pain, and mistreatment.”

Occasionally, solitary confinement may be necessary to separate prisoners but why forbid books and newspapers? This is retribution not deterrence. Indeed, as Peter Moskos has argued, physical punishment would be a better deterrent and more humane.

Hat tip: Robin Hanson.

1 Richard July 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm

“This is retribution not deterrence.”

Retribution is a legitimate function of the penal system. Retribution takes the natural social (and probably genetically hard-wired, for good Darwinian reasons) desire for vengeance against a wrongdoer and channels it through the state, thereby preventing the cycle of vendettas and feuds that arise in the absence of an effective state. Without retribution in the penal system, people would take the law into their own hands, and we’d all be worse off.

This is not to defend solitary confinement per se. Rather, it is to say that calling it “retribution” is not an effective criticism.

2 j r July 6, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Is there any empirical proof of this? Are people in countries with soft prisons more likely to take the law into their own hands? Are people in countries with very harsh prisons less likely?

3 vanderleun July 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Well, go find out j r. This isn’t some unpaid research group devoted to filling in your ignorance.

4 j r July 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and say that the person making the initial claim is the one with the burden to provide proof.

I would be interested in doing some research on why you feel the need to be such a pr*ck, but I’m sure that the ultimate answer would be rather inane.

5 vanderleun July 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Get cracking, slacker.

6 Bushido July 6, 2012 at 1:56 pm


7 Willitts July 7, 2012 at 12:57 am

You’re the one who desires to change the status quo.

Lay down your burdens.

8 Think July 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Wow. Destroyed.

9 rjs July 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Live reports from Norway on the penal system that runs contrary to all our instincts – but achieves everything we could wish for – Can a prison possibly justify treating its inmates with saunas, sunbeds and deckchairs if that prison has the lowest reoffending rate in Europe? Live reports from Norway on the penal system that runs contrary to all our instincts – but achieves everything we could wish for. They spend their days happily winding around the network of paths that snake through the pine forests, or swimming and fishing along the five miles of pebble beaches, or playing on the tennis courts and football pitch; and recuperating later on sunbeds and in a sauna, a cinema room, a band rehearsal room and expansive library. Their commune has handsomely furnished bungalows with cable TV. The residents eat together in an attractively spacious canteen thoughtfully decorated with Norwegian art. The centrepiece is a striking 10ft long model of a Norwegian merchant ship.–catch-UK.html

NB “lowest reoffending rate in Europe”

10 Luke July 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Do you think maybe Norway have a less reoffending rate due to its more stable society? I know they have some social problems just like any other country but if they were to incorporate their prison philosophy in another country, let’s say Brazil, it would be very interesting to see how the inmates would respond to it and the difference it would make (although it would cost there government way too much). Im very happen to of found your comment as it was something I did not know about Norway’s prison system. A clever person once said to me ” if prisons worked, there wouldn’t be any “.

11 DK July 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Ah, but Norway is full of Norwegians.

12 So Much For Subtlety July 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm

There are two memes floating around the internet about Norway. One is that one in ten Norwegian women has been raped. Well, according to the usual suspects. The other is that in the last decade or so, Norwegian police have not had a single indigenous Norwegian suspect in a rape case.

Now I don’t believe either, but Norway is moving from a homogeneous society to something more like the United States. About a tenth of the population is not indigenous. Which means they will slowly move to a more typically American justice system as well. Low crime is common wherever people feel part of one community. If immigrants do not, then no one else will either. Although I am prepared to bet that rape rates among Americans of 100% Norwegian descent are not that different from those of Norwegians themselves.

As for Brazil, they did this experiment. They abolished most punishment for children a long time ago. Which means if a 12 year old in Rio asks for your wallet you had better give it to him.

13 MirzaD July 7, 2012 at 4:16 am

Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the culture/population is less prone to reoffending and so they provide prisons that are going to keep them that way; i.e, not turn the inmates into worse criminals.

14 Andreas Moser July 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I doubt that there is a natural desire for vengeance.

15 MC July 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm


16 dan1111 July 7, 2012 at 3:22 am


17 Careless July 6, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Really? We’ve observed it in a number of animals.

18 Andreas Moser July 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Deterrence is the only legitimate reason for punishment: And even that doesn’t work very well.

19 So Much For Subtlety July 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Then you ought to support the death penalty. The more deterrence the better, right? Proportionality is not, in your way of things, a legitimate factor? And at least the death penalty deters one person. Which is more than we can say for sure about prison.

20 Andreas Moser July 10, 2012 at 10:08 am

Absolutely wrong.
The death penalty doesn’t deter its recipient because whoever is convicted of it already committed the crime.

Proportionality is not a reason or a justification for punishment, but a limiting factor.

21 rpenm July 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Solitary confinement is regularly used on nonviolent offenders and with little due process or transparency, suggesting that its primary purpose is not to satisfy the animus of victims, but to enable prison administrators to more effectively control the population.

22 Ape Man July 6, 2012 at 7:10 pm


23 So Much For Subtlety July 6, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Given that there may be more rapes in prison than outside prison – that is the majority of rape victims in the US may well be male (with all due concerns about the reliability of the data etc) – I am intrigued by the implication that effective control of the prison population is not a worthy goal in and of itself. Surely you are defending it? Or should prison officials take no position on the violence of inmates against each other and the guards?

24 Andrew' July 7, 2012 at 5:20 am

Is this really better than vendettas? Are victims even aware of this retribution? Is society even vaguely aware of it and the possible costs? Better would be to exaggerate the punishment to ameliorate vengeance. “Criminals are locked completely alone in the dark except for brief periods of anal rape.” But noone really knows. Better yet, how ’bout restitution? Criminals certainly can’t earn restitution funds in solitary.

Besides, how sure are you that vendettas would be so much more prevalent if prisons were different? Does the current system really address vengeance and how powerful is the instinct toward vengeance anyway? Most of my life I’ve responded to wrongs with simple avoidance. That is mostly what prison does. Since noone really knows, that makes me think prison is just locking people away. It is primarily about separation. How much did vendettas serve as a justice system for when you can’t lock someone away? Partly, you don’t want the perpetrator to hurt someone else again. And does democratic government ever do anything counter-cyclical? Why do we need government to reinforce zeitgeist? If prison were in fact a good vengeance system, would it partly amplify our sense of entitlement for vengeance?

Protecting the innocent is the aspirational goal of an ideal prison system and don’t get me wrong, I’d execute this goal extreme prejudice. I probably oppose the death penalty, but not because I think government should be above it, I just think they are incompetent. We just don’t need government to reinforce the worst parts of our nature. At worst, it should present friction in that direction and grease the skids towards righteousness.

25 Ray Lopez July 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm

“Indeed, as Peter Moskos has argued, physical punishment would be a better deterrent and more humane.” – why a better deterrent? If solitary is so bad, presumably it already is more deterrent than physical punishment. I say keep it.

26 vanderleun July 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Alex Tabarrok hands you a link for “Why” which connects, somewhat unhelpfully, to an Amazon book link for a tome pumping up flogging. Whether or not Alex Tabarrok has actually read said book is left unstated but I think it is likely that he has not. He could, however, be gleaned the support for the premise of this item from the reviews and comments at the Amazon link.

27 John Thacker July 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm

One standard theory offered is that people likely to commit antisocial acts have problems with delayed gratification (see Stanford marshmallow experiment); i.e., they have low time preference. Therefore, immediate swift punishments are a better deterrent for such people than a long term slow punishment.

28 Andreas Moser July 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Punishment is (almost) no deterrent at all because criminals don’t consider getting caught. If they did, they didn’t commit the crime in the first place.

29 DK July 6, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Is that’s why violent crime was so much lower in Warsaw block? Or why Mao’s China virtually eradicated chronic drug problem? Because punishment does not work?

30 Andreas Moser July 10, 2012 at 10:09 am

The Warsaw Pact and Mao’s China were punishments in themselves. Daily punishment of the entire population.

31 dan1111 July 7, 2012 at 3:35 am

This is 100% false and illogical. In places where punishment is high, it is true that criminals tend to be people who don’t consider the consequences of their actions. But this doesn’t mean there is no deterrent; it just means that the people who DID consider the consequences were deterred, leading to a selection bias in the criminal population. And then you use that as evidence that punishment is not a deterrent!

In places where punishment is low, you do indeed find people who take advantage of the lack of consequences in order to commit crimes.

32 Rob July 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm

“why forbid books and newspapers?”

Perhaps these are potential vectors for smuggling contrabrand, can be used to hide contraband within a cell, or can be fashioned into weapons?

33 Andreas Moser July 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm

If you limit it to one or two books at a time, nobody could start a fight with them.
Most inmates’ fists are better weapons than even a tome like “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Magic Mountain”.

34 anon July 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Most inmates’ fists are better weapons than even a tome like “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Magic Mountain”.

How about “Goodnight Moon” or “The Innocents Abroad”.

35 Ape Man July 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Mr. Moser,

You have a very limited imagination as to what shanks can be made out of.

36 R. Pointer July 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Ray, first read Moskos’ short book, In Defense of Flogging. Secondly, not by any stretch of the imagination are policies enacted by governments rational. Our society has a cultural aversion to physical punishment, for historical and moral reasons, and an attachment to reformist-minded modes of punishment.

As Moskos puts it, we might be wise to at least give the prisoner a choice between the two.

Lastly, pick a punishment because it is the worst doesn’t mean that it has the most deterrent effect. Some of the punishments bad qualities can result in mental health problems and future antisocial behavior. Solitary confinement can be said, in effect, to reduce social welfare without any increase in deterrent effect.

37 Ray Lopez July 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm

@ R. Pointer–I read on the first five pages–I am not impressed. I will not spend $10 on the Kindle version. The author Moskos admits flogging is preferable to most prisoners than prison. So again, there is less deterrent effect to flogging than prison–back to my original point. Moskos is implicitly making the policy argument that we federalize too many crimes–Cato said the same thing in a book a while ago–and I agree, but it does not rebut my original point.

38 Thor July 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Many of the people I’ve known who either became criminals or were likely to, were in fact extremely physical. Their “currency” — the basis for their interaction with the world — was physical, certainly less than cognitive or mental. They had a high tolerance for pain, but were averse to intense and prolonged concentration. (Hence they didn’t do well in school.) Wouldn’t it be fair to say that short bouts of physical pain, such as they would be familiar with from the gym or workout routines or fights, would be preferred by them? Assuming they are convicted criminals, why give them a punishment (lashing, flogging etc) that they are likely to choose, if given the choice?

39 Pshrnk July 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Yes, but they understand the physical so flogging might well be a greater deterrent. Ya gotta speak to people in a language they understand!

40 vanderleun July 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm

It would be even more effective and beneficial if a flogging was streamed live.

41 Kelvin July 6, 2012 at 1:59 pm

The irony is that (likely for PR reasons) prisons don’t seem keen to tell anyone what goes on in solitary confinement. So what deterrent effect can there possibly be?
I’m betting overwhelming majority of Americans, and even BIGGER majority of potential inmates, have no clue that much of the prison system is dedicated to essentially cooping people up until their brains turn into mush.
There’s no deterrence effect if nobody knows about it!

(There can be a deterrence for those that are put IN there, but the mental debilitation seems to outweigh that. Also no reason why that factor would apply for life inmates.)

42 eccdogg July 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Isn’t the goal of solitary to deter prisoners from acting bad in prison (beating up other prisoners, trying to escape, raping other prisoners, trying to kill guards, etc etc).

Surely prisoners once in prison know about solitary from word of mouth and from hands on experience.

43 Tummler July 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm

“There can be a deterrence for those that are put IN there.”

This prevention of a specific individual’s chance of recidivism is often referred to as “special deterrence.” Back in the 70’s or 80’s when the capital punishment debate was in fully swing, someone wrote a paper comparing the observed special deterrence resulting form various forms of punishment. The death sentence was deemed 100% effective.

44 The Anti-Gnostic July 7, 2012 at 8:14 am

In other words, high T and low impulse control. And given the preponderance of these biological factors, that’s a good argument for making all punishment corporal, capital or financial.

OTOH, I’ve known a few men who went in for lesser manslaughter convictions. A few years with no booze, no drugs and road crew work, and they came out much better people. If you incorporated that into the servitude necessary for a compensation scheme maybe you’d have the same effect. Incorrigibles and sociopaths just used to be exiled or killed.

45 R. Pointer July 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Well I read the book so I wonder where you pull the idea that Moskos’ whole thing is that we “federalize” too many crimes. The argument is that we are stuck in a wasteful, and socially harmful policy track where prison makes it even harder to reduce future crime. Spending years behind bars makes crime pretty much the only future career choice. Our go-to policy choice has been add more years, well there are other ways of increasing deterrence – timeliness and certainty. We barely even consider these.

For a nation that chooses to imprison about 2.5 million people every year, flogging has to be a Pareto improvement. Anyway, let’s us see some revealed preference instead of asserting which has higher deterrence effects.

46 Ricardo July 6, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I think Moskos brings up the possibility of physical punishment because it will cut down on prison rape victims and the economic and social costs of incarceration. Since this is an economics blog, the question is not just how much marginal deterrent effect a form of punishment has but also what the marginal cost of that punishment is.

47 John Thacker July 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

The horror of solitary (and the even worse horror of SuperMax prisons, like ADX Florence) is a large part of why I could not get worked up to support various options offered as alternatives to Guantanamo. The suggestions offered by the current Administration involved transferring the captives (while still unconvicted) to such horrors as SuperMax, which strikes me as worse than their current conditions (particularly with waterboarding no longer being used.)

48 Andreas Moser July 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm

This argument only holds if there is no third option between Guantanamo or Supermax prisons in the US. But there ARE plenty of other options.

49 dan1111 July 7, 2012 at 3:39 am

John’s whole point was about his preference among options that were actually offered. So, yes, his argument only holds when talking about the things he was actually talking about.

50 Jamie July 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I think it is worth asking what the US thinks it is buying by doing this. Any moral issues aside (and I find what we do to prisoners appalling), what, exactly, is the marginal value of driving people insane?

51 Ape Man July 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm

I agree that that solitary is one of the worst solutions out there. I would even put killing them as a better option myself. But it is clear that most of you guys are ignorant of what it is like to deal with a murder who already has a life sentence and has nothing left to lose. It is also clear that Alex and a lot of the rest of you have no idea of what people can make shanks out of (link I posted up thread was of toilet paper being made into shanks). Making one out of books or magazines is relative child’s play.

52 Nancy Lebovitz July 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I think it’s the belief that you can be blamed for doing something (punishment that leaves obvious damage) but not for doing nothing (just not letting the prisoner have essential sensory variety and stimulation).

_Torture and Democracy_ is a book about the development of no-marks torture. I’ve only read about half of it, but the point seems to be that as there’s more observation of what governments do, torture becomes more of an attack on the brain rather than the visible body.

53 dead serious July 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I am desperately trying to understand the logic behind letting prisoners choose their own punishments.

“How about a week of not eating cauliflower?”

54 MD July 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm

If given a choice between 40 lashes (and the resulting scars) and one year in solitary, I would choose the lash. If given a choice between suicide and 25 years in solitary, I would choose suicide. (I don’t know which side of the argument this supports.)

55 dead serious July 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

I’d take the year in solitary. Away from people and able to read with no distractions? That sounds like a time-delimited slice of heaven.

But if it’s 25 years, I’m with you.

Anyway, my point is: you’re in prison for a reason. You’ve chosen a course of action that results in forfeiture of some of your rights. The right to freedom, the right to choose your punishment, etc. is part of that social contract that we all understand.

56 Andreas Moser July 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I was once in solitary confinement for a week – – and the worst thing was not having any books. If you had books, I am not even sure solitary would be worse than having cell mates. If you are locked up for a long time, I assume you run out of things to discuss (unless again you can read books or newspapers).

57 mulp July 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Were you denied a bible? The point of solitary was penance – cells are modeled after the cells of monasteries, and are designed to promote silence as many religious orders traditionally practiced.

58 Jamie July 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Let us just assume that making monks out of prisoners is a fine thing.

Do you believe that the public/private incarceration system we have does that?

59 rpl July 9, 2012 at 7:41 am

Were you denied a bible?

The title of the post he linked to was “reports-about-my-trip-to-iran-in-junejuly-2009.” You do the math.

60 Andreas Moser July 10, 2012 at 10:10 am

I was shifted from cell to cell and the third one had a Quran. But I don’t read Arabic.

61 Mark Thorson July 6, 2012 at 7:42 pm

What’s worse than not having books? How about we give you books printed in disappearing ink and not enough time to read the whole thing?

62 dead serious July 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Nice work!

63 Dent July 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Give me internet access and I volunteer for this.

64 Andrew' July 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm

And a coffee maker?

65 Dent July 6, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Yes. And a coffee maker. I thought that goes without saying. 😀

66 dead serious July 6, 2012 at 11:33 pm

OK, you’re granted internet access – but no PC, laptop, smart phone or tablet – plus a coffee maker, sans coffee.

You chose…poorly.

67 Bender Bending Rodriguez July 7, 2012 at 1:58 am

I’d give him a computer. A Packard-Bell with an AMD K-6 running Windows ME. Hope you enjoy browsing the web with IE4!

68 Andrew' July 7, 2012 at 4:48 am

Oh, now you are talking about grad school.

The deal is off!

69 ibaien July 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm

the chief failing of solitary confinement, as a deterrent, is that it is unimaginable. the idea of being alone 161 out of 168 hours a week is so far from the contemporary american experience as to be rendered absurd. you may as well threaten offenders with hard labor mining helium-3 on the moon. the only work-around that i can envision is to compel every 16 year old in the country to endure some period of solitary confinement (a week? a month?) – long enough to render it frightening but short enough not to cause permanent psychological trauma. i do not believe this would be a politically workable solution.

flogging, though it is broadly imaginable, fails as a deterrent because it is brief and the cause of the pain is known. pain is made terrifying not when it is especially painful, but when its provenance and duration is unknown. no one would enjoy ten lashes, but i wager that a fair number of criminals would be willing to write them off as a cost of doing business. also, the weals would readily be reclaimed as a badge of honor, and thus directly work against deterring crime.

the ‘best’ deterrent i’ve come across so far (possibly on the comments page of this very site, but i might be mistaken) is to compel offenders to ingest laxatives and void themselves (without access to a toilet), live-streaming and archived on the internet. it’s universally shameful, it’s public, and it’s cheap.

however, i do not believe this would be a politically workable solution either.

70 mulp July 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm

The first supermax was the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a Philadelphia historic landmark and tourist attraction. It was designed by the English architect John Haviland in 1829, as part of a prison reform pushed by the charity today known as the Prison Society, then the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which was seeking to replace the overcrowded Walnut Street Prison which was expanded in 1790 to include 16 solitary cells for penance in silence, with silence work in a common workroom, but that was quickly overcrowded. However, the fate of the ESP quickly became that of the Walnut Street prison it replaced.

A picture of a cell which looks like the photo above is in the article which was laid out in the radial design of many supermax prisons.

The original history of prison reform is recorded in collections including one at the Philadelphia Historical Society which summarizes the ESP proposal as

“The committee hired British architect John Haviland, whose design for the penitentiary
would ensure that prisoners had little contact with each others. Each inmate would have
his own cell and yard in which he exercised and food was passed through a small
window in the cell door. As the finish touches were being put on the penitentiary in
1829, the members of the society were granted official visitor status by the state
legislature, making them the only non-government figures who were allowed access to
the inmates; the society was also named the outside overseer of the Eastern State
Penitentiary. The first prisoner entered the Eastern State Penitentiary in October 1829
while workmen were still finishing the construction of the building and almost six years
later, there would be 352 inmates.”

Note, the prison was designed with flush toilets to prevent communication between cells.

History repeats when the lessons of history are ignored, as the two century history of the Prison Society reflects, and that the Society continues to seek to address with reform.

Basically, supermax prisons, the Philadelphia System or Separate System, the competing Auburn System or New York System, and the iconic Auburn and Sing Sing prisons, which one might argue was based on “physical punishment would be a better deterrent and more humane”.

Crime and punishment and prisons and penitentiaries in the US have histories that are as rich is the USA which invented them, drawing on the ideas of others around the world with plenty of repeated mistakes.

71 chuck martel July 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Sounds like a lot of you don’t have much of an idea of what flogging is really all about. Where used, like the US Navy, it wasn’t a choice of the offender. It wasn’t the kind of whipping your dad might have given you for sassing him, either. A big, strong guy stripped the hide off your back with a cat and there was a good chance you wouldn’t even survive. You’d be crippled for weeks, maybe permanently.

If we are indeed on a path that leads to an increased level of civilization (and some important thinkers don’t feel that we are) our descendants will wonder what kind of barbarians we were on the basis of our prison system.

72 Careless July 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm

and there was a good chance you wouldn’t even survive.

I’m going to question whether or not this is right historically, and point out that it’s obviously not true were we to reintroduce the practice.

73 chuck martel July 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Corporal punishment in the early 19th century US Navy was a significant feature of the now ignored Herman Melville novel Whitejacket. His depiction of these practices created a national furor, congressional investigations and a change in US military policy. The idea that cruelty is effective in behavior modification is even embraced by some animal trainers, to the dismay of witnesses. But while its considered evil to injure or torture animals, it’s permissible to do so to humans that have somehow run afoul of the judicial system. We haven’t come very far from the government sanctioned hanging of witches in 1692 Massachusetts.

74 dan1111 July 7, 2012 at 3:50 am

That last sentence is pretty ridiculous. Actually, make that the last two sentences. The U.S. prison system is very much shaped by court rulings on the rights of prisoners and what is considered “cruel and unusual”. Torture and injury are not permissible. While I am sympathetic to the argument of this piece that solitary confinement may be too cruel, and in some forms may even be equivalent to torture, this would be an expansion of the definition of torture to cover something that has not traditionally been included.

75 chuck martel July 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Oh, yeah, a court ruling makes it just fine. The most primitive societies that we know about were more humane than the supposedly modern civilization structured by the techno-elites. While cruelty has always been a feature of human relationships it’s never been institutionalized to the point it has reached in the modern era. Hundreds of thousands incarcerated for maybe violating the preferences of whomever has the most effective lobbying effort is a sure sign of progress. Even the neolithic Comanches had a more highly developed morality than the average American suburbanite.

76 careless July 9, 2012 at 12:15 am

Which is all irrelevant to your claim that it would probably kill the subject. Read what I quoted again.. it’s ridiculously wrong, and you didn’t even try to defend it when you pretended to defend it

77 Luke July 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Back on the solitary confinement subject. What if inmates were given books that helped them with education. I’m sure that at least half would at least attempt to read them especially when they have nothing to do. Even real basic education books for the less bright. A system could be set up that the more they learnt, the more closer they are to being released from solitary confinement. Leaving them in there with nothing to do would only make them come out worst then what they were before they went in.
Or is that just creating smarter, deadlier criminals……

78 dan1111 July 7, 2012 at 3:56 am

The prisons already offer incentive systems for good behavior, as well as educational opportunities. Solitary confinement is usually reserved for those who have already been uncooperative.

(The Dayan article does suggest that in some cases people who followed all the rules were still placed in solitary. If so, that is an outrage. However, I believe my statement above is accurate for the most part.)

79 Andrew' July 6, 2012 at 6:34 pm

We should go in the exact opposite direction. Assume a 99% guilty rate and a 90% recidivism rate. The 1% innocent and 10% redeemable should be allowed to prove their reformation. The punishment of the 90% irredeemable is that they are the proving grounds.

80 DK July 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm

“This is retribution not deterrence”

Retribution *is* deterrence.

“physical punishment would be a better deterrent and more humane”

Maybe. Or maybe not. Obviously, at present not everyone agrees.

81 Benny Lava July 6, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Foucault argued that punishment shifted from punishing the body to punishing the soul. So the purpose of solitary is to hurt the psyche, to cause mental anguish in lieu of harm to the corpus. Don’t you guys read?

82 R. Pointer July 6, 2012 at 11:30 pm


Perhaps MR readers took Cowen’s recommendation a bit early:

83 careless July 9, 2012 at 12:27 am

Foucalt argued, QED Foucault was correct! Brilliant!

84 SteveLaudig July 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm

At some point it becomes nothing other than torture, but the Americans are good at that having been doing it since the War against Philippine Independence.

85 The Anti-Gnostic July 7, 2012 at 8:22 am

Read much history, or even current events?

86 Ed July 6, 2012 at 8:53 pm

Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography that the worst thing he experienced was solitary confinement.

87 Peter July 6, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Being in solitary has one advantage. If you aren’t sure what that is, watch the movie “Deliverance.”

88 David July 6, 2012 at 11:48 pm

If not solitary confinement, what should prisons do with problem inmates?

Some of these guys are unbelievably dangerous, and I’m not sure why the safety of C.O.s and other prisoners is ignored in these comments.

Executions? But the nation is moving away from that.

Flogging? It won’t be used any time soon.

89 dan1111 July 7, 2012 at 3:58 am

I agree that the article would have benefited from at least some discussion of the other side of the issue.

90 Andrew' July 7, 2012 at 4:57 am

Here is my idea, not quite ready for prime time. You don’t become a problem inmate.

If you do, you get put in a room with the other problem inmates. Every month, the problem inmate of the month with the best behavior rejoins the general prison population.

91 careless July 9, 2012 at 12:32 am

And the losers spend a lot of time in the prison garden?

92 Peter July 9, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Because most of these guys aren’t unbelievable dangerous, your “what’s about the CO’s” argument runs afoul of the “what about the children” or “the what about the police” on why no-knock shoot anything that barks batter anybody else warrants are required for 100 pound women with no criminal record who wrote a bad check. Being a CO is a dangerous job; if you don’t like it don’t become a CO. You can control these prisoners without harm to the CO’s without resorting to small cells with no windows; break proof ballistic glass is a start.
Not to say solitaire confinement doesn’t serve a purpose but it should be strictly controlled with progressively longer stints with regular non-partial review boards. Also you can use additional time added to sentence as punishment or in cases where it’s already life, the death penalty should be the end game.

93 CG July 7, 2012 at 1:33 am

1. The retribution argument, although it may satisfy some primal need, has no rational basis. It fails to point to any purpose for the punishment. Why have a policy without any rational basis that imposes senseless harm on a significant number of people? There is virtually no limit to the crazy things that could be done on the grounds that a policy proposal satisfies some sort of primitive moral inclination. We’ve reached a point in human history where we are sophisticated enough to rely on reason to form the rules of our society, rather than blindly give in to emotion.
2. It is obvious that the marginal deterrent value of solitary confinement is practically nonexistent.
3. Prisons also serve a rehabilitative function. As the post suggests, solitary confinement does the opposite – it makes the prisoners even less fit for human interaction. At hardly any extra cost, books and other resources could be provided to those prisoners that could vastly improve their potential for rehabilitation, or at the least may prevent them from degenerating any further.

94 careless July 9, 2012 at 12:34 am

” It fails to point to any purpose for the punishment”

The most cursory examination reveals this as a really stupid lie. Why would you bother doing that?

95 Doc Merlin July 7, 2012 at 2:29 am

Where did you get the insane notion that jail was about deterrence.
Its about punishment without making the populace queasy.
Flogging causes people seeing the event to feel pain (having mirror neurons is a bitch). Solitary confinement is invisible.

96 DK July 7, 2012 at 2:38 am

Punishment *is* deterrence. Never perfect but always is.

97 Rationalist July 7, 2012 at 9:59 am

An excellent comment, ibaien.

I agree pretty strongly that flogging wouldn’t be a deterrent. A known amount of intense pain would probably be written off by the kind of people who choose to be criminals. But you could probably say the same about laxatives and public humiliation with shitting yourself, especially once it became common. It might even become a badge of honour.

If you really wanted to deter criminals, you would have to resort to exactly the kind of cruel and unusual punishments that are politically unworkable. For example, castration for your third violent offence. Or a “no rules” torture prison which was made to resemble hell – fire, torture rooms, packs of ravenous wild animals hunting for human flesh. Videos of offenders being eaten alive by unspeakable horrors or having their eyes eaten out of their sockets by insects.

To a hardened street criminal, anything less than that is just not going to have the neccessary psychological and emotional impact to make them behave.

I suspect that the optimal balance between deterrence and kindness would be to lobotomize hardened criminals, euthanize them or castrate them. All three procedures would cut the reoffence rate to zero. All three would avoid basically torturing prisoners, and all three would provide something that would frighten a large number of people enough that they wouldn’t want to risk getting caught. For first time offenders, education and help in the Norway style would be best, but on the second or third violent offence there has to be something horrific waiting for them.

98 ibaien July 7, 2012 at 10:41 am

thanks. from my layperson’s standpoint, one of the best literary analyses of the issues surrounding confinement, torture, and justice has been gene wolfe’s (truly excellent) ‘book of the new sun’. i shan’t spoil the books, but one of the primary concerns raised is whether or not it is possible to torture ethically as a form of deterrence. quite germane to the issue at hand.

99 Rationalist July 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm

My instinct is that the extreme level of torture required isn’t ethical.

I also think that there’s a lot to be said for castration. Testosterone fuels violence, take that away and I think you would get both a high deterrent value and a low reoffence rate.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll look it up.

100 chuck martel July 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm

How long’s it been since your lobotomy?

101 Rationalist July 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Let’s hear your better idea for dealing with serial murderers who have reoffended multiple times. You may be right and I may be wrong.

102 michael July 7, 2012 at 5:48 pm

“but why forbid books and newspapers?”

I think that, for most niggers, reading would be worse punishment than either solitary or flogging…

103 Andreas Moser July 10, 2012 at 10:12 am


104 Robert July 7, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I work by myself in a small office. Give me a small room and things to read and I’m happy. I’d bet Tyler would be too.

That’s why it’s not an effective punishment.

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