There are two kinds of solitary confinement in the United States. One starves a prisoner’s senses. The other overwhelms them. In a Supermax—a high-tech dungeon specifically designed to warehouse men in isolation—a prisoner has virtually no contact with other human beings. Locked behind a slab of steel into a cell smaller than a parking space, he smells and touches only cement. He hears only the incessant hum of a dim fluorescent light that never goes off. If he’s fortunate, he’ll have a window.
Alternatively, in seg—an isolation cell in a max-security prison—he hears the screams and rants of other convicts echoing through the tier, morning and night. He smells it when those prisoners smear their cell walls with their own shit, when they puke, piss, or bleed. His eyes sting when a neighbor on the tier refuses to obey an order and armed guards storm his cell, beat him, and spray him with mace. Sometimes the prisoner is so cold that he wears both his jacket and his shoes to bed, or so hot he wraps his body in wet rags. All day long, doors slam, walkie-talkies crackle, keys jingle. If he ever gets out of prison, these sounds will trigger him for the rest of his life.
In the age of mass incarceration, solitary confinement—the practice of isolating a human being in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day—has become a punishment of first resort in America. It’s the prison of the prison system, and like the larger institution that feeds it, it is rife with cruelty, racism, and Constitutional violations. Though it was created to reduce violence, solitary increases it. Though it is meant to be a deterrent, solitary promotes recidivism. Though some authorities still believe the medieval fiction that it fosters personal redemption through habits of meditation and penitence, solitary irreparably harms the human psyche. Researchers believe it damages the body and brain as well, but they can’t test this hypothesis, because what we do to prisoners every day—house them in prolonged isolation—is illegal to do to laboratory animals. It is against the law to treat rats the way we treat people in solitary.
A convict can be banished to solitary at a correctional officer’s whim, for nearly any reason: assault, gambling, mouthing off, failing to clean his cell, singing, filing grievances, even (incredibly) attempting suicide. He can also be sent there for activism or holding unpopular views—essentially, as a political prisoner. “I told them, ‘I haven’t done anything,'” says Ojore Lutalo, a black revolutionary who, while serving a sentence in New Jersey for bank robbery, was banished to solitary for 22 years. “They said, ‘You could if you wanted to.'” Once in solitary, the prisoner is under extreme scrutiny and may easily incur further violations that extend his term. He can of course file a grievance if his Constitutional rights have been breached; I spoke with one man who says he filed hundreds. But mail mysteriously gets lost in solitary, and litigious prisoners face retaliation.
Solitary has become an American gulag— “the place they dump the trash they most want to be forgotten,” as one convict put it to me. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of prisoners in solitary on any given day is approximately 90,000. No national database exists to track who they are, how long they’ve been held there, or why. Compared with free citizens, they are at least five times as likely to be mentally ill. A City of New York study suggests they are nearly three times as likely as prisoners in the general population to be black and nearly twice as likely to be Latino.
Under President Obama, who called solitary “an affront to our common humanity,” the federal government and about half of the states in the country began restricting their use of solitary. These efforts gained bipartisan support for economical, not compassionate, reasons: Solitary is twice as expensive per capita as maximum-security prison. But change must come separately to hundreds of individual jurisdictions across the country—federal, state, and county—and addressing the problem in one place may only mean shifting it onto another. Particularly in states with powerful unions, such as New York and Illinois, correctional officers often condemn and obstruct reform. Their ability to send a prisoner to seg makes them feel safer, even if studies show they probably aren’t.
For this article, GQ interviewed 48 current and former prisoners, as well as corrections officials, lawyers, researchers, and activists. Some of these prisoners committed heinous crimes; many did not. Their offenses range from murder to burglary to carjacking to extortion to drug possession or distribution. “I did deserve to go to prison,” one man told me, “but I didn’t deserve to be tortured.” This is what one day, every day, of their lives is like.
Read more at GQ.