The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) touched on a controversial topic at its annual annual meeting this month — solitary confinement.
University of Pittsburgh law professor Jules Lobel spoke at the conference about his role as lead counsel in a proposed class action lawsuit against Pelican Bay State Prison in California. Lobel is seeking to represent more than 1,000 prisoners there who spent at least a decade in solitary confinement.
Lobel cited four reasons solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment violating the Eighth Amendment. Solitary confinement also violates the right to due process under the Constitution, Lobel said.
Other speakers at the AAAS conference agreed with Lobel’s view, as does the ACLU. Here are four main Constitutional arguments against solitary:
1. Solitary confinement violates the basic concept of human dignity.
“Researchers have concluded you shouldn’t keep lab animals in this kind of solitary confinement. Why should we treat people that way?” Lobel inquired.
In the Pelican Bay solitary unit, prisoners spend 22.5 to 24 hours a day in an 80-square-foot, concrete, windowless cell — about the size of a king-size bed. They can’t make phone calls. And they’re often denied visitors and physical activity. The food is even sometimes rotten, Lobel wrote in the San Jose Mercury News.
2. It denies basic human rights.
“We are social creatures and to take away that social nature from us deprives us of a basic human need,” Lobel said. “The courts have recognised that even if you’re in prison, you can’t be deprived of basic human needs.”
In this way, the punishment also violates the due process clause, according to Lobel. “The Supreme Court has held that in this kind of confinement, you have to give people periodic hearings which are meaningful,” he told The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.
Yet some of the prisoners, especially at Pelican Bay, have remained in their singular cells for 10 or 20 years, Lobel alleges.
The Supreme Court has not ruled any specific length of time in solitary unconstitutional. The high court, however, has ruled the “length of time cannot be ignored” when deciding the constitutionality of specific circumstances.
3. It causes significant mental and physical pain and suffering.
Robert King, another speaker at the AAAS conference, spent 29 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana. He noticed his vision drastically deteriorate during that time. Prison doctors confirmed he entered solitary with 20/20 vision but eventually needed glasses, King said.
“I could not make a face out six feet in front of me — even my brother or mother,” King said.
King also has difficulty navigating his surroundings. “If I’m around one corner of my house, by the time I get to the next corner, I’m lost. I’m embarrassed,” he said.
Indeed, solitary confinement can cause prolonged depression, which can cause the brain’s hippocampus to shrink, University of Michigan neuroscience professor Huda Akil said at the conference. The hippocampus helps us orient ourselves in space and control our emotions.
“Think of your brain being similar to trees in spring with a lot of leaves and buds …. Visually, you can look at scans and see winter in the brain. It gives new meaning to the ‘winter of our lives,'” Akil added.
Aside from depression, the lack of physical activity, social interaction, or natural sunlight in solitary alone will harm a person,
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, said at the conference.
“Each one is sufficient enough to change the brain and change it dramatically, whether it is brief or extended. And when I say extended, I mean days, not decades,” he said.
4. In many cases, it’s unnecessary.
“Many people put in solitary are not dangerous at all and don’t warrant this kind of treatment,” Lobel said. “Many of the prisoners at Pelican Bay haven’t committed any violation.”
For example, sometimes a simple tattoo will be taken as gang affiliation. Pelican Bay also bans the African language Swahili, meaning you could get solitary for having a Swahili pamphlet, according to Lobel.
While a judge recently refused to dismiss Lobel’s proposed class action suit, he still has to prove that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual as established by previous case law.
In a landmark Eighth Amendment case from 1994, the Supreme Court found a prison official can only be liable for denying inmates of humane conditions if he knew an inmate faced high risks of harm but disregarded that risk.
Lobel also claims that solitary confinement violates International Law. The Committee Against Torture, a project of the United Nations, to which the U.S. belongs, has recommended countries abolish solitary confinement entirely because of the potentially harmful mental and physical health effects.