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).
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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/ http://worldcat.org.
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 http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A293675639/AONE?u=nysl_ce_hamilton&sid=AONE&xid=2c9398da.
Eisenman, Stephen F. 2009. “The Resistible Rise and Predictable Fall of the U.S. Supermax.”
Monthly Review 61(6):31-45 (https://search.proquest.com/docview/213161331?accountid=11264).
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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/41970789.
Flower, Ruth. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Quakers.” (https://www.fcnl.org/updates/solitary-confinement-and-quakers-118).