I originally wrote this as a comment on a post on solitary confinement over at co-author, Chris Uggen’s blog, but it sort of took on a life of its own as I reflected on my recent experience briefly visiting several different semi-isolated wings of a state prison, so I thought I would share those thoughts here.

It’s interesting to think about the varying levels of harm in different versions of solitary confinement.  I’m convinced that true isolation – such as some supermax prisons proudly proclaim – literally drives inhabitants crazy, but it’s less clear what effects shorter-term and semi-isolation may have on inmates.

I recently went into the isolated wings of a state prison for a research project and spent a very brief amount of time talking cell-front to men in the disciplinary segregation unit, the intensive management unit, and administrative segregation.

Although physically a more pleasant space with at least some natural light and prison bars on the doors rather than headache-causing metal-on-metal mesh, the administrative segregation unit is the one that sticks in my mind.  The men are there because – for various reasons – it is literally not safe for them to be out in the general population (it’s similar to the idea of protective custody).  They will likely spend their entire sentence in that wing; they probably will not have the opportunity to earn their way to general population with good behavior the way that those in IMU and DSU have.

The cells are double-bunked, share walls, and have somewhat open, barred fronts, so sound definitely travels.  My escort and I happened to be there at meal time, so the guys were eating their meals off of their prison trays in their cells, reminding me that they have almost no time out of their cells and virtually no contact with anyone other than those in that wing.

It’s probably impossible to fully understand the prison experience, and especially the varying harm caused by different levels of segregation/solitary confinement without having lived it, but that shouldn’t stop us from studying it and learning what we can.  It must be completely terrifying to spend your entire sentence in the relative isolation of administrative segregation and to then try to make it in the free world.