Saturday, September 4, 2010

Revisiting Atul Gawande's "Hellhole" Essay

It's been almost a year and a half since The New Yorker published Atal Gawande's provacative essay Hellhole, an eye-opening account of the overue of solitary confinement in American prisons. More than 25,000 American inmates are in solitary at any given time, according to Gawande's figures. Another 50,000 to 80,000 are in administrative segregation, which often involves isolation. Despite evidence showing that a stay of more than 10 days in solitary has no real benefits in imposing compliance with prison discipline, many offenders are subjected to solitary for years at at time. And because the human self is social, the deprivation of social contact is a recipe for driving people into psychosis. Gawande contrasts British and American approaches to offenders classified as "the worst of the worst." Beginning in the 1980s, British correctional officials gradually moved toward providing more, not less, opportunity for social interaction to the highest risk inmates. Meanwhile, the United States began to build supermax prisons, where inmates have virtually no human contact on a daily basis. Two paths diverged in a dark wood - and one has led straight to hell for tens of thousands of people.

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