80,000 Ghosts

John McCain wrote of his time as a prisoner of war, “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Tomorrow night, PBS will air a Frontline documentary that looks at solitary confinement through the lens of conditions at one state prison in Maine. You can check your local channel listings here.

In the United States, we hold about 81,000 inmates in some form of isolated confinement at any given time, according to recent numbers from the Justice Department.

True, the practice may be viable or necessary in cases of serious, imminent security risks.

But if we employ the practice beyond that, we should confront the full costs of doing so, and those include the human toll exacted not just on prisoners but on their stewards as well.

We should consider, for example, the opinion of the former assistant chief of mental health for Rikers Island, who wrote about her experiences in the punitive-segregation unit there.

We should recall the story of the three American hikers who were accused of spying in Iran a few years ago; one of them spent 410 days in solitary confinement, and she lived to tell about it.

We should contemplate the words of one inmate who called solitary confinement “the cruelest thing one man can do to another.”

And ask ourselves if the horrors of solitary confinement undermine its use, or when.

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