American Women in the Catholic Church

Catholicism is declining in the United States. Of the 32% of Americans who were raised Catholic, 41% convert to another religion (Bengston 2013). The decline can be attributed, in part, to the historically patriarchal structure of the church which excludes women and fails to account for changes in the social beliefs of modern Catholics (Konieczny 2013). This has culminated in some Catholics leaving the church for modern alternatives which still emphasize Catholic beliefs, but better incorporate women. For the church to mitigate its current decline, adjustments to the structure of the church must be made to make women feel more accepted as Catholics.


The church has a patriarchal structure which marginalizes women. According to a fundament
al governing law, Canon Law 1024, only baptized males are permitted to be ordained as priests, pastors, bishops, cardinals, or the pope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that only men can receive holy orders because Jesus Christ chose only men as his apostles. Pope John Paul II affirmed in 1994 that this teaching of the Church is definitive and is not open to debate among Catholics. More recently, Pope Francis affirmed the doctrine that only men can govern the Catholic Church, reaffirming the Catholic church’s favoritism of men. The tradition of the male-only priesthood perpetuates a predominantly male point of view on social issues, which does not sufficiently consider the perspective of female members.

The Catholic church’s best chance at survival in America is to become more compatible with modern egalitarian social norms, including opening the hierarchy to women. Wouldn’t ordaining women help the church to modernize? 64 percent of American Catholics support women’s ordination as priests and want women to administer the sacraments of the Catholic church.

Given the obstacles to change within the church, some Catholic women are seeking alternatives to practicing Catholicism outside of the traditional structures (Spickard 2005). Bishop Marie Bouclin is part of a small succession of Catholic women being ordained outside the official Church. “In the early Church, people gathered in their homes,” Bouclin says. She continues: “Who can say that what we’re doing is not valid? Sometimes, we have to obey God and not men… The Pope is not God.” Bouclin believes that her form of prayer is just as viable as services conducted by male priests in the Catholic Church. Being born a woman has not stopped Bishop Bouclin from connecting with her faith as both a priest and a leader of her congregation.

pat-cook-lead-media.jpgBishop Marie Bouclin

If the Catholic church fails to modernize, its current decline will continue. In The Sacred Canopy (1967), social theorist Peter Berger argues that in a modernizing, secular society churches and religions may appeal more to their congregations when they are consistent with current social structures and mainstream cultural norms. The Catholic church’s failure to adapt over time has caused young people in America to leave the church (Smith 2014). A study conducted over ten years using a nationally representative sample of teenagers by the National Study of Youth and Religion found that, of those who identified as Catholic as teenagers, ten years later, only 50 percent of them still identified as Catholic (Konieczny 2016). This speaks volumes about the Catholic Church’s failure to connect with its latest generation.

As a college educated feminist raised Catholic, I have a personal stake in this. I am uncomfortable going to mass because there is going to be a male priest teaching me. I would like to see women at the altar, conducting mass, baptism, and communion. All of these symbolic rituals will have more meaning for me if a Catholic woman conducts them. The Catholic Church is sexist; its traditional doctrines must be defied so that women can be better incorporated within the church.


Problematically Progressive: Transgender Rights in Islamic Iran

Iranian transgender rights are a double-edged sword. Legislatively, the Iranian state subsidizes hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery for trans people.[1] Due to the lack of religious doctrine on trans-ness, Iran mimicked Western human rights, allowing gender reassignment surgeries. However, the Iranian state continues to reinforce strict gender boundaries by using trans surgeries as a way to ‘fix’ homosexuality. Furthermore, there are no laws protecting trans-Iranians from discrimination.

Why would the Iranian government offer legislative support?

Iranian legislation on gender transitions began in the 1930s with intersex people. The legislation stated that people could live as they identified while they waited for reassignment surgery.[2] Trans Iranians used this ambiguity to their advantage, achieving a legal backing for their identity. However, during the Iranian Revolution, religious extremists questioned one trans woman’s identity and tortured her.[3]In 1987, following extensive discussions over Islamic religiousPicture1 doctrine, religious authorities released a fatwa[4] that allowed for people to transition. However, people could only express their identity after they underwent gender reassignment, which physically altered their genitalia to model that of another gender.

By contrast, Iran places deadly restrictions on homosexuality using interpretations of the Qur’an to justify their decision.[5] Because the Qur’an does not say anything about trans people, Iranian officials felt free to draw upon secular states’ policies on trans rights in subsidizing hormone therapy and gender reassignment. However, this choice diverts from the religiously informed norm of fixed male and female gender roles.[6]

National Identity and Collective Dissonance

Many Iranian citizens continue to discriminate against trans people, even though trans people have legal backing.[7] Trans people are barred from jobs and housing.[8] Picture2Discrimination happens in the home as well, feeding into LGBT homelessness rates. Dominant Iranian culture ties fixed gender binaries to daily tasks, manifesting in the positions of power in religious institutions, and what is considered gender appropriate with clothing, eating, and praying. LGBT people blur the pairings of masculine and male, feminine and female. This blurring may cause discomfort in those who are accustomed to rigidity, resulting in discrimination. However, some Iranians believe that transitioning can protect gender roles and heterosexuality.[9]

What does trans policy look like in practice?

Much like Western states, in order to receive hormones and permission to get surgery in Iran, candidates must go through an intensive filtering process. In the Iranian filtering process, psychologists interview applicants for gender reassignment and decide if the candidates are mentally stable enough to undergo transition.[10] Picture3However, Iranian psychologists also take a spiritual approach to trans-ness. Iranian policy-makers and the wider population largely believe that trans people have a dissonance within their soul. As a result, they allow trans people to seek rightness in their body.[11] The process reveals the interplay between spirituality and secular policy in Iran. However, the government also uses the filtering process to force gay people to transition “with the aim of eliminating homosexuality”.[12] Many psychotherapists who suspect that a patient is homosexual will pressure them to transition.

Although Iranian trans rights allow for people to feel comfortable with themselves, the government uses the rights to perpetuate concepts of gender hierarchy and heterosexuality. Additionally, the Iranian government does not go far enough in their protection of trans people because they mimic Western rights, but also have different gender systems altogether.

[1]  Azadeh Ansari, 2017, Transgender rights: These countries are ahead of the US

[2] Afsaneh Najmabadi, 2008, Transing and Transpassing across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran

[3] Angus McDowall, 2004, The Ayatollah and the transexual

[4] A religious legal opinion

[5]  The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done (38:4447).

[6] Jennifer Cohen, 2008, Islamic Law in Iran: Can It Protect the International Legal Right of Freedom of Religion and Belief?

[7] Fatemeh Javaheri, 2010, A Study of Transsexuality in Iran

[8] Ibid 8

[9] Afsaneh Najmabadi, 2011, Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith: Transgender/Sexuality in Contemporary Iran

[10] Afsaneh Najmabadi, 2011, Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith: Transgender/Sexuality in Contemporary Iran

[11] Afsaneh Najmabadi, 2008, Transing and Transpassing across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran

[12] Ibid 10 pg. 535

Passing Ships

When my mom and my dad got married, their 11-year age difference did not seem like a lot. The more striking difference between them was their religious views. These differences have continued to evolve as my parents have gone through important life events such as having kids and becoming empty nesters.

As my mother used to say, my father didn’t grow up in the church, he married into it. Surrounded by my mother’s strong Swedish-German Lutheran family, my father was practically forced to start attending church once they began seriously dating. This pattern of conversion, similar to many same-faith couples, is what created a strong religious foundation for my parents to pass down to their kids (Bengtson, 2017). Growing up, I remember the same wake-up call, same Sunday best, same service, same pew every week. Like many religious parents, my mother and father regularly attended services with my brother and I (De Vaus, 1982; Tilley, 2010) and our weekly ritual was a staple among my first memories all the way until high school.

My mother took the lead role in my religious education.

As sociologist Christian Smith explains in Moral, Believing Animals (2010), people use cultural moral orders, like religion, to guide their life decisions. Lutheranism provided her with a system with which to teach her kids the difference between right and wrong. Breaking the 8th commandment and stealing things from the store was unacceptable. Saying the Lord’s name in vain was unacceptable. Wearing jeans to church was not in the commandments, but still unacceptable. My mother’s consistently stronger presence in my religious experience is similar to that of many mothers, who often cite more constant church attendance in comparison to fathers after having kids (Willits & Crider, 1989).

Fast forward to today: my brother is moved out and I am away at college. Our empty house has left my mother with no parental obligations. With this new freedom, she has rather quickly abandoned her dedication to the church. With no young kids at home, the formalities of church society have become tedious and she is ready to sleep in on Sundays.

My dad was the opposite.

After a long break from work, my father took a job at our family’s church. In retrospect, my family did not just see a change in his job description, but a change in his attitude. Soon, on Saturday nights, my dad was asking if we were going to church in the morning, he was praying before every meal, and he was even singing in church with confidence and purpose. My father’s experience turning to religion as a confidence booster matches other middle age men in his age group (Krause & Ellison, 2007).

Despite their different reactions, my parents’ belief in a higher power appears to be the same as it was before they got married. My mother has grievances with the institutional aspects of our church. But, I still notice her closing her eyes after we go up for communion and taking a moment of reflection to be close to God. Just like other parents, although my mother’s external religious practices waned as her children get older, she still has a strong personal religious connection (Moberg, 1972). On the other hand, my father’s increased church attendance is common within his age group. As a result of his increased participation, he is finding his own spirituality. Clearly, my parents are both religious people, which is key to how they connect as life partners (Bengtson, 2017), but how they engage that spirituality is independent of each other.

Everyone has their own unique journey with religion.

As my parents move through different life stages, just like everyone else, their relationship with religion and spirituality changes. Becoming parents brought them closer to religion for the sake of their children. Yet, both are in a new part of their life, closer to retirement, and exploring their spirituality through new paths. Both paths are equally valid, equally meaningful, just a little different.


Works Cited

Bengtson, Vern L. Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed down across Generations. Oxford University Press, 2017.

De Vaus, David A. “The Impact of Children on Sex Related Differences in Church Attendance.” Sociological Analysis, vol. 43, no. 2, 1982, pp. 145–154. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Krause, Neal, and Christopher G. Ellison. “Parental Religious Socialization Practices and Self-Esteem in Late Life.” Review of Religious Research, vol. 49, no. 2, 2007, pp. 109–127. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Moberg, David O. “Religion and the Aging Family.” The Family Coordinator, vol. 21, no. 1, 1972, pp. 47–60. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Smith, Christian. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Tilley, James R. “Secularization and Aging in Britain: Does Family Formation Cause Greater Religiosity?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 42, no. 2, 2003, pp. 269–278. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Willits, Fern K., and Donald M. Crider. “Church Attendance and Traditional Religious Beliefs in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: A Panel Study.” Review of Religious Research, vol. 31, no. 1, 1989, pp. 68–81. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Upholding Community over Individualism: The Oneida Community (1849-1880)


Community members posing on the lawn of the mansion (mid-19th century).

Under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, the Oneida Community was a religiously-based Utopian group that centered around spiritual and communal harmony in an effort to achieve spiritual, social, and economic balance in a “Heaven on Earth” (Syracuse).  The Community practiced Perfectionism, believing it possible to be free from sin and “perfect” on earth through religious conversion and will power. The group lived in the Oneida Community Mansion House in Oneida, New York.  They made an effort to live, eat, work, socialize, and sleep together. The Oneida Community upheld their communal values with their practices of complex marriage, the layout of the physical space they inhabited, and mutual criticism.  

The Oneida Community suppressed some of the emotional, sexual, and romantic desires of its members in an effort to uphold communal love and loyalty.  The community practiced complex marriage, which consisted of having sexual relations with multiple members in the Community and avoiding “special love,” or strong feelings for another person (Barnard 2007).  This contributed to ensuring that everyone remained loyal to the Community and maintained equality within it. The Community believed that lovemaking was spiritual, bringing members closer to God and to each other (Reynolds 1993).  Partners had a limited amount of time for interactions, as well as a limited number of visits with a specific partner. Individuals appeared to have more sexual agency with this practice.  In some ways the community offered more autonomy, while it delineated other behaviors.  In comparison to dating and marriage in the outside world, the regulations imposed upon members limited their autonomy of choice in other ways by enforcing more controlled sexual relationships.                               


The Big Hall.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 9.48.26 PM

The adjacent parlor. (Grace Passannante)

The Oneida Community deliberately designed their home to instill their communal values by providing ample physical space for members to interact in group settings.  In the mansion, interior spaces were designed to facilitate communal living, as well as group interaction and teamwork (Syracuse, Gieryn 473). After weekly community meetings in the Big Hall, members gathered in the adjacent parlor to reflect on the conversation and socialize (Jessup).  The lavishly decorated parlor was surrounded by small, stark individual bedrooms, encouraging members to spend less time in their rooms and more time with the community. An emphasis on group interaction in  common spaces, as well as in the dining halls, limited the opportunity for privacy (Kanter 510, 1968).    

The Community practiced mutual criticism, which consisted of an individual standing on stage during daily meeting, and various members telling them how to improve.  By engaging regularly in mutual criticism, Oneida Community members made efforts to improve themselves and the Community as a cohesive group (Barnard 2007). Mutual criticism was an opportunity for the individual to adjust himself to the Community’s expectations, as well as to purify the community (Kanter 508, 1968).  The process of mutual criticism told the individual how to behave for the betterment of the community, at the cost of self-expression. For example, if members spent too much time alone in their bedrooms, they would be criticized for that behavior and told to make more of an effort to live communally (Jessup).

By intensely promoting aspects of community through their rituals and practices, the Oneida Community suppressed individualism.  The layout of the living spaces in the Oneida Community Mansion House, in addition to the group’s everyday practices, required members to engage in a communal lifestyle in all aspects of their lives.  Although members chose to join the community to achieve salvation through communal living, they suppressed a sense of individuality. The community actually disbanded shortly after they began having children, in part because of the complications it introduced into their communal lifestyle (Jessup).  The reality is, it is difficult to balance both community and individuality. It is important to acknowledge what can happen when individual rights are overlooked for the sake of the “betterment” of the community. There needs to be a healthy balance between individual rights and communal well-being. An overemphasis on communal values can reduce the autonomy, agency, and voice of the individual – and even lead to the destruction of an organization or community.  Where does one draw the line?   


Barnard, Beth Quinn. “The Utopia of Sharing in Oneida, New York.” The New York Times, 3 Aug. 2007.

Gieryn, Thomas F. A Space for Place in Sociology. Annual Reviews, 2000.

Kanter, Rosabeth Ross. “Commitment and Social Organization: A Study of Commitment Mechanism in Utopian Communities.” American Sociological Review, vol. 33, no. 4, Aug. 1968, pp. 499–51. JSTOR.

Passannante, Grace. “Interview with Molly Jessup, Tour Guide at the Oneida Community Mansion House.” 1 Mar. 2018.

Reynolds, David S. “Complex Marriage, to Say the Least.” The New York Times, 24 Oct. 1993.

Syracuse University Library, Special Collections. “The Oneida Community Collection in the Syracuse University Library.”  

Jonestown, Forty Years After the Mass Suicide


Over 900 Americans died on November 18, 1978 in my parents’ native country of Guyana, South America. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre that happened in Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America. Founded by Jim Jones on principles of equality, The People’s Temple was a cult whose members took part in the mass suicide in 1978. This tragic event has left a lasting impression on both American and Guyanese societies.









The People’s Temple appealed to Americans across the country, in particular African-Americans (refer to figure 5 below), who were tired of racism in the United States (Lawson, 2017). In the 1970s, Jones and his followers moved from California to Jonestown, Guyana (Kwayana, 2016). Jim Jones established his community in the middle of a jungle on the west side of Guyana, miles away from the capital, Georgetown (Kwayana, 2016). Jones’s socialist-inspired society was designed to supposedly erase social and racial boundaries and allow people to live in harmony. A propaganda photo, which was leaked from Jonestown to the US (shown in figure 4), captures a multiracial group of happy people.


Figure 5 Demographics of Jonestown (Moore, 2017)

The members so desperately wanted to find a solution to the racial divisions in the US, that they got drawn into this cult (Lawson, 2017). During the 1960s-70s many Americans experienced a spiritual shift and started to join cults and other spiritual and utopian communities which were “reflections or microcosms” of their idealized versions of society (Barker, 1986). Scholars of religion define cults as a small group of people led by a charismatic leader, who create their own religiously-inspired non-traditional way of life based on certain new religious beliefs (Johnstone, 2006). The People’s Temple had elements from the Christian church, but with the addition of socialist and communist ideas (Kwayana, 2016). During its early years, a legitimate church in the US, the cult did not become a danger for members until Jones moved with his followers to Guyana and had total control of his society without government regulation (Barker, 1986). After Jonestown, the concept of ‘cult’ was applied to the group as a derogatory term. Cults then became associated with the Jonestown Massacre and its “lunatic” leader because of the worldwide attention it garnered (Barker, 1986).

One could look at the People’s Temple as a civil rights protest gone wrong (Lawson, 2017). Unfortunately, Jones took advantage of his members’ yearning for change and hope by forcing them into a system similar to modern slavery once in Guyana (Johnstone, 2006). Jones then initiated the mass suicide of his 918 followers, because he thought the US government was suspicious of his activities (Kwayana, 2016).

Although people come to America because it is regarded as a “promised land” or “land of opportunity,” the story of the People’s Temple shows that America was not a promised land for many Americans who suffered from racial discrimination. Sadly, the members who followed Jim Jones ended up looking for a new “Promised Land” in the wrong place: Jonestown, Guyana (Kwayana, 2016). Instead of holding common prejudices against the cult members, we need to recognize their humanity and look at the factors that drove them to the cult in the first place. Social issues like racism still dominate the American society. My parents emigrated from Guyana to the US, hoping for a better life, but is life in America really better? In America, as members of ethnic and racial minorities, we face oppression and discrimination that limit our opportunities.


The Americans who joined The People’s Temple had their own reasons, but the Guyanese government wanted Jones to bring his followers to Guyana. Guyanese people, like myself, prefer to look at the Jonestown Massacre with an outsider perspective; it was an American issue that just happened in our land (Kwayana, 2016). However, Jonestown showcased how the Guyanese and US government had failed their people. Through email correspondence, Dr. Khaleel Mohammed argued that the Guyanese government failed its people, because they naively allowed a stranger into their country with the hopes he would “harness [Guyana’s] hydro-resources, and improve on the country’s agrarian potential” (Mohammad, 2018). The Guyanese government quickly disassociated themselves with Jonestown after the massacre. However, the massacre forever remains a “black mark” on Guyana’s history (Mohammed, 2018).

But why exactly did people want to join this cult? Some philosophers argue that cult members are brainwashed into thinking it is in their best interest; however, there are other social issues that play into people’s eagerness to join cults (Barker, 1986). The People’s Temple was initially successful because it offered hope to members who were unhappy with the social environment in the US.  That is why it is a mistake to simply limit the narrative of Jonestown to a mass suicide. The message people should learn from this tragic story is one of a fight for equality, which ironically has yet to be obtained, as well as a cautionary tale that warns us about running away from problems instead of tackling them at the root. Americans should remember the Jonestown Massacre as a horrific event that could happen again since the American society is still struggling to end racial and social inequality.


Barker, E. (1986). Religious movements: Cult and Anticult Since Jonestown. Annual Review of Sociology, 12, 329-346. Retrieved from

Johnstone, R. L. (2006). The Church-Sect Continuum of Religious Organization. In Religion in Society. New York : Routledge.

Kwayana, E., Howard, L., Massay, L., & Sharma, P. D. (2016). A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective. Los Angeles, CA: Carib House.

Lawson, L. (2017, September 25). Rare Photos From Jonestown, the Deadliest Cult in American History.

Finding Community at College: Religiosity on the Hill

For many students, entering college means leaving home, learning how to live with a roommate, and organizing their own academic work for the first time in their life. As indicated by the presence of groups like Hillel and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, students often turn to religion to make sense of these experiences and figure out their identity on campus.

As a non-religious member of the campus community, this led me to wonder: how do religiously affiliated students at Hamilton feel that religion affects their lives on campus?

To answer this question, I conducted informal text-message interviews by writing three open-ended questions about religiosity and sending them to religiously affiliated students that I was acquainted with. The examples I will use in this blog post obviously don’t represent the school community as a whole. Rather, they provide insight into certain students’ experience with religiosity in college and the ways that religion works as a social tool for these students. These stories are just a few examples of how religiosity is important as a lived experience, rather than just an abstract concept. (Orsi 2002)

Having arrived at Hamilton from a Catholic school, sophomore Caitlin explains how her Catholic background affects her relationships at Hamilton: “coming from a school where literally everyone shared my faith to one where the majority does not, makes me feel a bit isolated.”  This feeling echoes previous research illuminating a stigma that Hamilton students cannot be both intellectual and religious. (Boucher & Kucinskas 2015) Attending a secular institution, Caitlin finds it difficult to hold herself to the religious standards that her school once enforced, especially participation in service. However, she finds that having Catholic community on campus is affirming, one example of which is going to Mass and “[seeing] fellow students who share [her] same religion and beliefs.”



John Croghan of the College Chaplaincy leads Catholic mass

Octavia, another sophomore, attends weekly services as a way to connect with the community she had at her Catholic high school. She also finds support in knowing that there are fellow Catholics on campus, specifically mentioning community formed by people eating lunch with the priest after Sunday services. However, she feels that religion does not directly influence her social life. “[Catholicism] certainly has made me more open to meeting more people and I think it lets me see the good in people,” she says, but then explains that religion is a personal pursuit outside of the Catholic community on campus.

Amanda, a Jewish sophomore on campus, came to Hamilton from a secular K-12 institution but immediately turned to Hillel for social support. She explains that “[finding] a group of friends right off the bat because of [her] religious affiliation … was very comforting as a new student in a new place.” Though it was initially a tool to ease her transition to college, Amanda now considers Hillel a routine part of her life; her participation in Hillel has given her access to friendships across many class years and she can turn to her fellow members for advice about school as well as emotional support.


Jewish students celebrate Chanukah as part of a celebration organized by Chabad

Through his leadership role in student government, sophomore Noah experienced explicit religious discrimination, specifically comments about there being ‘too many Jews’ and that ‘they were taking over’. However, Noah does not regularly participate in Jewish community on campus, rather using Chabad to celebrate important holidays with peers when away from home.

Though not representative of the entire Hamilton community, these examples show how attending a secular college can be alienating for religious students. Students’ participation in religious groups and services demonstrate that despite this alienation, religious resources on campus create communities where individuals can find unity and comfort. (Berger 1967) On the Hamilton campus, religious groups go one step further than secular communities such as Greeks societies or clubs by using students’ spirituality and family background to foster unified groups and provide emotional support.



Works Cited/Consulted

Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy.

Boucher, Kateri, and Jaime Kucinskas. “’Too Smart to be Religious?’ Discreet Seeking Amidst Religious Stigma at an Elite College.” Social Inclusion 4.2 (2016): 40-51.

Orsi, Robert A. “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In? Special Presidential Plenary Address, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, November 2, 2002.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42, no. 2 (2003): 169-74.


Irreality in Solitary Confinement

Every day, we do some version of this:

“Hey, what’s up? How are you doing?”

“Oh, nothing much. What about you?”

This is a ritual.

Despite its apparent triviality, rituals serve an important purpose. Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) suggest that these daily ritualistic conversations work as vehicles of “reality maintenance.” Through our interactions with other people, we confirm that the present, everyday reality is our primary, paramount reality (compared to other realities, like dreams). We legitimize and maintain our understanding of our experiences and coexistence with people in shared cultures (Berger, 1967).

So, what happens when we no longer have other people or our usual rituals to confirm our reality? What happens when we’re in forced solitude, such as inmates in solitary confinement?

According to sociologist Peter Berger (1967), without continuous confirmation, people lose sight of the reality of everyday life and fall into irreality, a place of chaos and madness. To some, this may seem overly dramatic. However, in experiencing isolation from others without typical rituals and interaction, this terrifying phenomenon is what happens to individuals in solitary confinement.

Inmates in isolated, high security cells do not have another person to confirm their reality. One study on the psychological effects of solitary confinement (Arrigo & Bullock, 2007) found that people in solitary confinement have higher rates of self-mutilation, attempted suicide, and recidivism compared to inmates not in solitary confinement. Although solitary confinement can psychologically damage healthy individuals, it is even worse for people who already have a mental illness because it may trigger symptoms. Yet, people with mental illness are more likely to end up in solitary confinement than healthy people (Arrigo & Bullock, 2007).


(Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Based upon a Quaker religious ritual, solitary confinement began as a social experiment. Isolated prisoners were given the Bible in a small, naturally lit room (Roberts, 1985). There was a belief that solitude would lead to repentance and rehabilitation. This aligns with the Quaker value that silence makes room for worship and reflection. However, this experiment was quickly abandoned when prisoners went into psychosis and committed suicide (Roberts, 1985).  In a statement regarding solitary confinement, on behalf of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Ruth Flower declared, “It’s a 185-year-old experiment. It failed… This society knows how to require each other to be accountable for our actions, without destroying the people inside our prisons” (Flower, 2014).

Although once believed to be rehabilitative, solitary confinement is now mostly used as a technique of punishment or control (Arrigo et. al, 2007). This decision is not subject to judicial review nor is it a part of the inmate’s legal sentence. Instead, the use of solitary confinement is entirely in the hands of the prison administration (Eisenman, 2009). Therefore, it may be subject to bias or discrimination.

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects people from “cruel and unusual punishments.” Is it cruel and unusual punishment to strip people of necessary resources to maintain their reality? A congressional hearing in 2012 declared it is not (States News Service). However, based off of sociological theory and psychological evidence, I strongly disagree.  


Arrigo, Bruce A.; Bullock, Jennifer Leslie (19 November 2007). “The Psychological Effects

Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units”. International Journal of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology. 52 (6): 622–640. doi:10.1177/0306624X07309720. Retrieved 17 March 2014.

Berger, Peter L., Luckmann, Thomas. 1967. The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Available: /z-wcorg/

Berger, Peter L., 1929-2017. (1967). The sacred canopy; elements of a sociological theory of religion. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday

“Durbin Chairs First-Ever Congressional Hearing on Solitary Confinement.” 2012. States News

Service, Available: Academic OneFile; Gale

Eisenman, Stephen F. 2009. “The Resistible Rise and Predictable Fall of the U.S. Supermax.”

Monthly Review 61(6):31-45 (

Roberts, Leonard H. 1985. “The Historic Roots of American Prison Reform: A Story of Progress and Failure.” Journal of Correctional Education 36(3):106-109

Flower, Ruth. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Quakers.” (