As Covid case numbers began declining this past spring, I resumed volunteering in a prison after almost two years away. Staff members and inmates told me about what had happened during my absence. Most of it was troubling. Hundreds of sick inmates had been quarantined; others were confined to their cells all day, receiving no recreation time, communal meals, or public educational activities. Worship opportunities sometimes disappeared. (I often worship at the prison, too.) I’ve been writing about solitary confinement for more than a decade, and I know how bad it can be. But that didn’t stop my spirit from sinking as inmates recounted the horrific results of this practice, changed but still widespread at our prison. Some prisoners, I learned, had resorted to acts of self-harm, including cutting.
Because of these experiences, I was eager to read Danielle S. Rudes, Shannon Magnuson, and Angela Hattery’s Surviving Solitary: Living and Working in Restricted Housing Units. Unlike other books on this topic, theirs relies on extensive research conducted at more than one prison. Also atypically, the authors devote considerable attention to the experiences of people who work in prisons. But the book’s strengths largely end there. Surviving Solitary not only fails to convey the uniquely pernicious character of modern solitary confinement; by disregarding ethical concerns, human dignity chief among them, it fails to grasp the moral urgency of abolishing solitary confinement.
Early on, Rudes and her coauthors clarify some significant vocabulary choices. Noting that corrections departments rarely use the term “solitary confinement,” they too replace it with “restricted housing unit” (RHU), since inmates can sometimes be paired in a single cell. But the difference is largely semantic: RHUs are specifically designed to isolate inmates for long periods of time, usually twenty-three hours per day. Instead of “inmate” or “prisoner,” Rudes and her coauthors adopt the term “resident,” maintaining that it displays respect to the incarcerated. But, as many who write about prisons have argued, such terms risk obscuring what actually happens inside. (I happen to agree with them.)
Nevertheless, the scale of the research here is impressive. Working with the permission of corrections officials, Rudes and her colleagues collected and analyzed data at six different prisons of varying security designations (medium and maximum). Using pseudonyms to avoid endangering their subjects, the authors include extensive quotations from staff members and inmates who reflect on topics such as risk, relationships, rules, reentry, reform, and reversal and revision. Their remarks reveal horrifying details about how RHUs operate. When inmates attempt to commit suicide by hanging, corrections officers first shower them with pepper spray before attempting to save their lives. Inmates who commit minor infractions (such as standing in the wrong place in their cells) can lose access to meals or showers. Such rules are often poorly communicated and enforced arbitrarily. Indeed, quotes from many prison staff reveal a startling ignorance of official prison policies.
Insightfully, Surviving Solitary illuminates how working in an RHU can damage corrections officers, too. Staff often suffer from strained family relationships, or struggle with substance abuse and mental illness. Perplexingly, most officers in this book eschew compassion for the inmates they supervise, holding them entirely responsible for their situation and therefore worthy of punishment. What helps explain this attitude is something Rudes and her colleagues call “masked malignancy.” It refers to the unintended consequences of RHUs, which often unfold gradually and unexpectedly. Sadly, those who suffer such malignancies often deny that any problem exists.