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We Talked To 100 People About Their Experiences In Solitary Confinement – This Is What We Learned

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Living conditions in a solitary cell at New York’s Rikers Island jail. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

The United States leads the world in its use of solitary confinement, locking away in isolation more of its population than any other country.

Every day, up to 48,000 inmates – or around 4% of the incarcerated population – are locked in some form of solitary confinement in detention centers, jails and prisons across the U.S.

Some spend months – or even years – at a time in isolation, only being allowed out a few times a week for a 10-minute shower or a short exercise period in an outdoor dog run. And it doesn’t only affect prisoners. Up to 20,000 other people are affected as well – working as correctional staff or providing mental health services or other programming.

The black cover of a book with 'Way Down in the Hole' written on it.
Interviews with guards and prisoners in solitary are collected in the book ‘Way Down in the Hole’
Cover image by James D. Fuson

Over three summers, we interviewed people who were confined or employed in solitary confinement units to better understand what it is like from both sides of the bars. The interviews form the basis of “Way Down in the Hole,” a book published on Oct. 14, 2022.

In the course of our research, we spent hundreds of hours in solitary confinement units in facilities in a mid-Atlantic Rust Belt state. We conducted in-depth interviews with 75 prisoners and 25 staff members – including both civilian staff and prison officers.

This is what we learned from the interviews. Names have been changed to protect identities.

Solitary confinement is dehumanizing

Everyone we interviewed, both prisoners and officers alike, told us that solitary confinement is like being locked away out of sight, out of mind, and that the consequences on their physical and mental health were significant, and often stripped away their humanity.

Locked in a cell about the size of a mall parking space, prisoners are confined 23 hours a day with virtually no human interaction other than to be subjected to strip searches and have their hands cuffed and their feet shackled. They eat, sleep, meditate, study and exercise just inches away from where they defecate.

Blue pained doors with numbers in white paint on them are seen along a barren prison corridor.
Numbered doors in a solitary wing at New York’s Rikers Island.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

One prisoner, an avid reader we will call Scholar, spoke to us nine months into his stay in solitary confinement. “All human privileges are gone; they treat you like a dog. They bring you food, they throw it to you, you shower in a cage, you exercise in a cage. Just because I’m wearing orange [the color of the jumpsuit for incarcerated people confined in solitary] doesn’t mean I’m not human.”

His experience isn’t an isolated one. Marina, who has been confined in solitary for more than a decade, remarked: “I’m treated like I’m in a zoo … I’m being treated like an animal. I feel lost and forgotten.”

Correctional officer Travis, who has worked in solitary confinement for 12 years, expresses a similar sentiment. “You don’t realize how stressful it is inside the walls,” he said. “You feel like an inmate. Inmates are running institutions and you have to do things to take care of them, and no one is taking care of us.”

Solitary confinement breeds racial resentment

Prisons are disproportionately filled with Black and Hispanic people, and solitary confinement is even more intensely racialized.

Black men comprise around 13% of the male population, yet make up nearly 40% of the incarcerated population and 45% of those locked in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, in many states, including where we conducted our research, most prisons are built in rural communities that are overwhelmingly white. As a result, many corrections staff members – who tend to be drawn from the local population – are white. In hundreds of hours of observation in seven different prisons, we did not see more than a handful of corrections staff who were nonwhite. Yet the majority of people we saw in solitary confinement and whom we interviewed were Black or Hispanic.

In our conversations, guards certainly spoke to the resentment they felt toward prisoners in general and those in solitary in particular.

From their perspective, prisoners have better living conditions than the victims of their crime or the people who staff prisons.

“Inmates get TVs, tablets, kiosks, email; victims get nothing. They don’t get their family member back,” corrections officer Bunker said. “I lived in a bunker in Iraq for a year, and these guys have a better commode … not made of wood that they don’t have to burn.”

Because prisoners in solitary are locked up 23 hours a day, every daily need must be met by an officer. Officers hand deliver and pick up meal trays three times a day. Toilet paper is dispensed twice a week. Prisoners must be escorted to showers and the yard and even to therapy sessions. And before each and every movement out of cell, they must be strip searched, handcuffed and shackled. We watched officers do this for hundreds of hours, and it’s exhausting for the guards. Under these circumstances – and given the relatively low pay guards receive – it is easy to see how resentment builds up.

An officer we call Porter said: “I have an elderly family member who had to give up their house to get a medical procedure, and the inmates get the best medical care for US$5. I knew a guy on death row that got chemo. Imagine that … paying to keep a guy alive just to kill him!”

And, because staff members are almost all white and the prisoners are disproportionately Black, this resentment becomes racialized. Scholar told us the prison he is incarcerated in is “one of the most racist prisons. [The guards] have no problem calling us ‘n*****.’”

And yet, some prisoners choose solitary

Despite the dehumanizing conditions of solitary confinement and the resentment it breeds, we met many prisoners who actively sought out solitary – and staff members who opted to guard those prisoners.

Many corrections staff preferred to work in solitary confinement units for a variety of reasons. Some preferred the pace of the work; some lived for the adrenaline rush of a cell extraction. Others told us that compared to other jobs available in their community, working in solitary was more interesting.

An officer we call Bezos who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center before starting at the prison summed it up: “I could warehouse boxes or warehouse people; people are more interesting.”

Perhaps more surprising, many prisoners also told us they chose solitary.

Some requested solitary confinement for their own safety, to avoid gang violence or the threat of sexual assault by other prisoners or retaliation for debts they owed on the inside or on the outside. Those placed in “administrative custody” – that is, they are placed in solitary not for punishment but for safety – said they experienced fewer restrictions than those who were sent to solitary confinement as punishment.

But many prisoners we interviewed deliberately committed misconducts, such as refusing a guard’s order, as a way of deliberately getting sent to solitary confinement by way of punishment. It was seen by some as a way to control one aspect of their lives.

Others endured the dehumanization of solitary confinement simply to be moved from one housing unit to another or to another prison all together. They did this to be closer to home – which would allow their families more opportunities to visit – or to a prison that had more programming, such as education classes or treatment.

A prisoner we call Fifty committed a misconduct that he knew would get him sentenced to the supermax facility in the state, despite it being known as one of the most racist prisons in the system and one of the hardest places to do time.

The reason, as Fifty explained, was that it kept him isolated from the man who killed his brother. Fifty worried that if tempted, he might kill the man and spend the rest of his life in prison.

The move was successful. Fifty was paroled just a few months after we met him, directly from solitary confinement to the streets of a major U.S. city.

A system in which no one wins

The picture that emerges from the interviews is one of a system that doesn’t serve the prison population or those employed to guard them.

People who spend time in solitary confinement are more likely to die sooner after their release – as are officers, who also have one of the highest rates of divorce. There is also no evidence that confinement acts as a deterrent or is in any way rehabilitative.

Any amount of time in solitary confinement can cause declines in mental health. Many people placed in solitary confinement find they end up back in prison after they are released because they are unable to function or because they haven’t learned tools that help them stay out of trouble.

And, because of the prisoner to staff ratios and individual cells, the cost of holding someone in solitary confinement is around three times that of the general prison population.

From our interviews, the overarching takeaway is it is a system in which no one wins and everyone loses.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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When The Supreme Court Loses Americans' Loyalty, Chaos – Even Violence – Can Follow

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Policemen keep a mob back as James Meredith, a Black student trying to enroll at the University of Mississippi, is driven away after being refused admittance to the all-white university in Oxford on Sept. 25, 1962. AP Photo

The Supreme Court’s historically low public standing has prompted a national conversation about the court’s legitimacy. It’s even drawn rare public comment from three sitting Supreme Court justices.
What’s referred to by experts as the problem of “judicial legitimacy” may seem abstract, but the court’s faltering public support is about more than popularity.

Eroding legitimacy means that government officials and ordinary people become increasingly unlikely to accept public policies with which they disagree. And Americans need only look to the relatively recent past to understand the stakes of the court’s growing legitimacy problem.

Cost ‘paid in blood’

The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education shined a light on many white Americans’ tenuous loyalty to the authority of the federal judiciary.

In Brown, the court unanimously held that racial segregation in public education violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The justices were abundantly aware that their decision would evoke strong emotions. So Chief Justice Earl Warren worked tirelessly to ensure that the court issued a unanimous, short and readable opinion designed to calm the anticipated popular opposition.

Warren’s efforts were in vain. Rather than recognizing the court’s authoritative interpretation of the Constitution, many white Americans participated in an extended, violent campaign of resistance to the desegregation ruling.

A highway with old cars on it and a billboard that says 'IMPEACH EARL WARREN' on the side.
Resistance in the South to the Supreme Court’s school desegregation order was strong and often violent. This billboard urged impeachment of the court’s then-chief justice, Earl Warren.
AP photo

The integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 provides a pointed example of this resistance.

The Supreme Court had backed a lower federal court that ordered the university to admit James Meredith, a Black Air Force veteran. But Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett led a wide-ranging effort to stop Meredith from enrolling at Ole Miss, including deploying state and local police to prevent Meredith from entering campus.

On Sunday, Sept. 30, 1962, Meredith nevertheless arrived on the university’s campus, guarded by dozens of federal marshals, to register and begin classes the next day. A crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 people gathered on campus and broke into a riot. Meredith and the marshals were attacked with Molotov cocktails and gunfire. The marshals fired tear gas in return.

In response, President John F. Kennedy invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 and ordered the U.S. Army onto campus to restore order and protect Meredith. Overnight, thousands of troops arrived, battling rioters.

Armed troops along a sidewalk in the night, with fire in the background.
President John F. Kennedy called in federal troops to quell the violence against James Meredith’s enrollment in the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Lynn Pelham/Getty Images

The violence finally ended after 15 hours, leaving two civilians dead – both killed by rioters – and dozens of wounded marshals and soldiers in addition to hundreds of injuries among the insurgent mob.

The next day, Oct. 1, Meredith enrolled in the university and attended his first class, but thousands of troops remained in Mississippi for months afterward to preserve order.

What some call “the Battle of Oxford” was fueled by white racism and segregation, but it played out against the backdrop of weak judicial legitimacy. Federal courts did not command enough respect among state officials or ordinary white Mississippians to protect the constitutional rights of Black Mississippians. Neither Gov. Barnett nor the thousands of Oxford rioters were willing to follow the court order for Meredith to enroll at the university.

In the end, the Constitution and the federal courts prevailed only because Kennedy backed them with the Army. But the cost of weak judicial legitimacy was paid in blood.

Legitimacy leads to acceptance

In contrast, when people believe in the legitimacy of their governing institutions, they are more likely to accept, respect and abide by the rules the government – including the courts – ask them to live under, even when the stakes are high and the consequences are far-reaching.

For example, two decades ago, the Supreme Court resolved a disputed presidential election in Bush v. Gore, centered on the counting of ballots in Florida. This time, the court was deeply divided along ideological lines, and its long, complicated and fragmented opinion was based on questionable legal reasoning.

Police in helmets with riot gear with smoke in the background.
Clashes between riot police and Donald Trump supporters near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But in 2000, the court enjoyed more robust legitimacy among the public than it does today. As a consequence, Florida officials ceased recounting disputed ballots. Vice President Al Gore conceded the election to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, specifically accepting the Supreme Court’s pivotal ruling.

No Democratic senator challenged the validity of Florida’s disputed Electoral College votes for Bush. Congress certified the Electoral College’s vote, and Bush was inaugurated.

Democrats were surely disappointed, and some protested. But the court was viewed as sufficiently legitimate to produce enough acceptance by enough people to ensure a peaceful transition of power. There was no violent riot; there was no open resistance.

Indeed, on the very night that Gore conceded, the chants of his supporters gathered outside tacitly accepted the outcome: “Gore in four!” – as if to say, “We’ll get you next time, because we believe there will be a next time.”

Risks ahead

But what happens when institutions fail to retain citizens’ loyalty?

The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection showcased the consequences of broken legitimacy. The rioters who stormed the Capitol had lost faith in systems that undergird American democracy: counting presidential votes in the states, tallying Electoral College ballots and settling disputes over election law in the courts.

The rioters may well have believed their country was being stolen, even if such beliefs were baseless. So, they rebelled in the face of a result they didn’t like.

This threat is far from gone. In addition to numerous important questions about individual rights and the scope of government power, the Supreme Court may soon be asked to resolve disputes over the administration of elections and the power to certify election winners – particularly the authority to designate a slate of presidential electors.

Nothing is certain in politics, but the specter of constitutional crisis looms over the United States. It’s dangerously unclear whether the Supreme Court retains enough legitimacy to authoritatively resolve such disputes. If it doesn’t, the court’s abstract legitimacy problem could once again end with blood in the streets.

The Conversation

Joseph Daniel Ura has previously received research funding from the National Science Foundation and funding for academic programs from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Matthew E. K. Hall has previously received research funding from the National Science Foundation.

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Republicans And Democrats See News Bias Only In Stories That Clearly Favor The Other Party

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If you detect news media bias, that perception may be a result of your own bias. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Charges of media bias – that “the media” are trying to brainwash Americans by feeding the public only one side of every issue – have become as common as campaign ads in the run-up to the midterm elections.

As a political scientist who has examined media coverage of the Trump presidency and campaigns, I can say that this is what social science research tells us about media bias.

First, media bias is in the eye of the beholder.

Communications scholars have found that if you ask people in any community, using scientific polling methods, whether their local media are biased, you’ll find that about half say yes. But of that half, typically a little more than a quarter say that their local media are biased against Republicans, and a little less than a quarter say the same local media are biased against Democrats.

Research shows that Republicans and Democrats spot bias only in articles that clearly favor the other party. If an article tilts in favor of their own party, they tend to see it as unbiased.

Many people, then, define “bias” as “anything that doesn’t agree with me.” It’s not hard to see why.

‘Liberal bias’ in the media is a constant topic on Fox News.

‘Media’ is a plural word

American party politics has become increasingly polarized in recent decades. Republicans have become more consistently conservative, and Democrats have become more consistently liberal to moderate.

As the lines have been drawn more clearly, many people have developed hostile feelings toward the opposition party.

In a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 45% of Republicans said the Democratic Party’s policies are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being,” and 41% of Democrats said the same about Republicans. A poll conducted in midyear 2022 by Pew showed that “72% of Republicans regard Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”

Not surprisingly, media outlets have arisen to appeal primarily to people who share a conservative view, or people who share a liberal view.

That doesn’t mean that “the media” are biased. There are hundreds of thousands of media outlets in the U.S. – newspapers, radio, network TV, cable TV, blogs, websites and social media. These news outlets don’t all take the same perspective on any given issue.

If you want a very conservative news site, it is not hard to find one, and the same with a very liberal news site.

First Amendment rules

“The media,” then, present a variety of different perspectives. That’s the way a free press works.

The Constitution’s First Amendment says Congress shall make no law limiting the freedom of the press. It doesn’t say that Congress shall require all media sources to be “unbiased.” Rather, it implies that as long as Congress does not systematically suppress any particular point of view, then the free press can do its job as one of the primary checks on a powerful government.

When the Constitution was written and for most of U.S. history, the major news sources – newspapers, for most of that time – were explicitly biased. Most were sponsored by a political party or a partisan individual.

The notion of objective journalism – that media must report both sides of every issue in every story – barely existed until the late 1800s. It reached full flower only in the few decades when broadcast television, limited to three major networks, was the primary source of political information.

Since that time, the media universe has expanded to include huge numbers of internet news sites, cable channels and social media posts. So if you feel that the media sources you’re reading or watching are biased, you can read a wider variety of media sources.

Front page of the April 15, 1789 edition of the Gazette of the United States
Thomas Jefferson described this partisan newspaper, The Gazette of the United States, as ‘a paper of pure Toryism … disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the people.’
Library of Congress, Chronicling America collection

If it bleeds, it leads

There is one form of actual media bias. Almost all media outlets need audiences in order to exist. Some can’t survive financially without an audience; others want the prestige that comes from attracting a big audience.

Thus, the media define as “news” the kinds of stories that will attract an audience: those that feature drama, conflict, engaging pictures and immediacy. That’s what most people find interesting. They don’t want to read a story headlined “Dog bites man.” They want “Man bites dog.”

The problem is that a focus on such stories crowds out what we need to know to protect our democracy, such as: How do the workings of American institutions benefit some groups and disadvantage others? In what ways do our major systems – education, health care, national defense and others – function effectively or less effectively?

These analyses are vital to citizens – if we fail to protect our democracy, our lives will be changed forever – but they aren’t always fun to read. So they get covered much less than celebrity scandals or murder cases – which, while compelling, don’t really affect the ability to sustain a democratic system.

Writer Dave Barry demonstrated this media bias in favor of dramatic stories in a 1998 column.

He wrote, “Let’s consider two headlines. FIRST HEADLINE: ‘Federal Reserve Board Ponders Reversal of Postponement of Deferral of Policy Reconsideration.’ SECOND HEADLINE: ‘Federal Reserve Board Caught in Motel with Underage Sheep.’ Be honest, now. Which of these two stories would you read?”

By focusing on the daily equivalent of the underage sheep, media can direct our attention away from the important systems that affect our lives. That isn’t the media’s fault; we are the audience whose attention media outlets want to attract.

But as long as we think of governance in terms of its entertainment value and media bias in terms of Republicans and Democrats, we’ll continue to be less informed than we need to be. That’s the real media bias.

This story is an updated version of an article that was originally published on Oct. 15, 2020.

The Conversation

Marjorie Hershey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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How Debt-For-Climate Swaps Can Help Solve Low-Income Countries' Fiscal And Environmental Challenges At The Same Time

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Debt swaps in some countries have involved commitments to protect the ocean. Ashley Cooper/Corbis via Getty Images

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley spoke passionately to the United Nations General Assembly in September about the mounting debt many developing countries are shouldering and its increasing impact on their ability to thrive.

The average debt for low- and middle-income countries, excluding China, reached 42% of their gross national income in 2020, up from 26% in 2011. For countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the annual payments just to service that debt averaged 30% of their total exports.

At the same time, these countries are facing a “triple crisis of climate change, of pandemic and indeed now the conflict that is leading to the inflationary pressures that lead regrettably to people taking circumstances into their own hands,” Mottley said.

Rising borrowing costs coupled with high inflation and slow economic growth have left developing countries like hers in a difficult position when it comes to climate change. High debt payments mean countries have fewer resources for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Yet climate change is increasing their vulnerability, and that can raise their sovereign risk, increasing the cost of borrowing. Declining productive capacity and tax base can lead to higher debt risks. It’s a vicious cycle.

As one solution, countries and international organizations are talking about “debt-for-climate swaps” to help tackle both problems at the same time. U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed mentioned debt-for-climate swaps ahead of the 2022 U.N. Climate Change Conference, Nov. 6-18, as one option for refinancing countries’ “crippling” debt.

How debt swaps work

Debt-for-climate swaps allow countries to reduce their debt obligations in exchange for a commitment to finance domestic climate projects with the freed-up financial resources.

They have been used since the late 1980s to preserve the environment and address the liquidity crisis in developing countries, including Bolivia, Costa Rica and Belize. These are commonly known as “debt-for-nature swaps.”

Belize, for example, was able to lower its debt in exchange for committing to designate 30% of its marine areas as protected areas and to spend $US4 million a year for the next two decades on marine conservation under a complex debt-for-nature swap.

The swap, organized in 2021 by The Nature Conservancy, involves the U.S.-based environmental group lending funds at a low-interest rate to Belize to buy back $553 million in commercial debt at a deep discount of 45%. The Nature Conservancy raised funds from the investment bank Credit Swisse via the issuance of “blue bonds” backed by the U.S. government, which gave the bonds a strong investment-grade credit rating.

Similarly, Costa Rica has carried out two debt-for-nature swaps with the United States. Under the swaps, Costa Rica agreed to allocate $53 million for conservation projects. It has already planted more than 60,000 trees and reversed its deforestation.

A child runs along large sandbags that form a sea wall while others pay in the water below.
Low-income Pacific Island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are fighting to protect their land from sea-level rise and erosion with sea walls like this one. Debt for climate swaps could free up money for such projects without expanding the country’s debt.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While debt-for-nature swaps have been used mostly for conservation, the same concept could be expanded to climate change mitigation and adaptation activities, such as building solar farms or sea walls. Some finance experts have suggested that debt-for-climate swaps could be structured in a way that could also encourage private-sector bond holders to exchange the national debt they hold for carbon offsets.

Three keys to successful debt-for-climate swaps

I work with the Climate Policy Lab at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Our experience with debt swaps offers lessons for the design and implementation of debt-for-climate swaps.

First, the complex governance structures of debt swaps have limited their use. In the past, transactions were generally small, generating only about $1 billion in funding for the environment from 1987 to 2003. A term sheet template for future debt-for-climate swaps could reduce the complexity and lower the time and costs involved.

Second, debt-for-climate swaps would need to relieve enough of the debt burden to allow debtor countries to invest in climate adaptation and mitigation projects. For instance, the U.S. created debt-for-nature swaps with Indonesia in 2009 that were criticized for not doing enough to help the Indonesian government achieve its conservation goals.

Another concern is known as “additionality” – ensuring that the swaps lead to additional climate efforts, as opposed to covering efforts already planned or already paid for with international climate finance.

With widening gaps between the amount of adaptation assistance reaching countries and the amount they need, debt-for-climate swaps can be a meaningful source of funding. Climate Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research group, recently estimated that about 90% of the adaptation needs countries listed in their Nationally Determined Contributions – the climate change plans they submit to the U.N. – can be only met with help from development banks or other countries.

Regions experimenting with debt swaps

A few regions are testing debt-for-climate swaps.

The Economic and Social Commission for Western Africa has developed a Climate/Sustainable Development Goal Debt Swap, in which it functions as a liaison between creditors and seven pilot countries. The initiative focuses on advancing sustainable development and climate goals, such as developing more resilient agriculture.

Similarly, as part of the Caribbean Resilience Fund, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean plans to launch a Debt for Climate Adaptation Swap. It aims to reduce the $527 million of debt in three pilot countries by issuing green bonds, similar to Belize’s debt swap. Development banks would play a crucial role by guaranteeing new bonds and reducing the credit risk.

With carefully designed debt-for-climate swaps and support from international institutions, developing countries could expand their finance for desperately needed climate mitigation and adaptation actions and remove some of their heavy debt burden.

The Conversation

Soyoung Oh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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