Cruel but Not Unusual

The Scandal of Solitary Confinement

Several years ago, I drove more than two hundred miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the isolated town of Boscobel. Boscobel is hard to get to; its airport has little commercial traffic, and the nearest Greyhound station is more than thirty miles away. If Wisconsinites have heard of the place at all, it’s probably because Boscobel is home to the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, a heavily fortified prison on the edge of town. I was there to visit one of the many inmates being held in solitary confinement.

Our visit was not exactly personal. It took place in a small room with a video screen near the ceiling, on which the image of the inmate suddenly appeared. I strained both my neck and voice to communicate with him. In the hour of conversation permitted to us, the inmate shared a story of remarkable resilience. Years of isolation in a small cell had left him with numerous physical ailments. Harsh and racist treatment from the prison staff had complicated his struggle to maintain sanity in a bleakly monotonous environment. He told me that only his practice of Islam had enabled him to survive. I left deeply impressed with his fortitude and personal dignity—and horrified at the conditions of his incarceration.

That visit to Boscobel brought home to me the degrading character of contemporary solitary confinement. In the past three decades, the United States penal system has embraced a brutal policy of isolating inmates. Despite a growing consensus that the...

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About the Author

Derek S. Jeffreys is professor of humanistic studies and religion at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He is author of Spirituality in Dark Places: The Ethics of Solitary Confinement (Palgrave Macmillan). He gives philosophy and religion lectures to inmates at the Green Bay Correctional Institution.