Commentary  Locked up

Reimagining the way we treat prisoners

Imagine locking yourself in your bathroom, staying there 23 hours a day, with little to no human contact. Nothing but the sound of your own heartbeat, the workings of your imagination, and perhaps some entertainment – a few books to pass the time, perhaps some photos to look at during the interminable hours.

This is a reality faced by thousands across North America, sometimes for years, or even decades at a time. While the numbers are notoriously difficult to determine precisely, in the U.S. approximately 80,000 prisoners are put in solitary confinement each year. In Canada, that number is around 7,600. It’s an inhumane practice that is overused and unreasonably allocated. In the States, solitary is often prescribed via an internal hearing, with the verdict decided by a minimal number of prison bureaucrats, without a lawyer present. It can be prescribed for the most arbitrary of offenses. Prisoners in possession of writings by Malcolm X, anything on prisoners’ rights, or even Machiavelli’s The Prince have been thrown into solitary under pretense of ‘gang membership’ supposedly proven by possession of these innocuous items. Once in, a prisoner can remain there for years.

Solitary – so clearly meant to break a person, rather than rehabilitate – is endemic in our prisons. The Unied Nations Special Rapporteur on torture wants it banned. And yet, as with most prison issues, change lingers far in the distance, and public attention remains insignificant.

By ignoring the legions of prisoners in solitary, and, on a larger scale, the huge number of men and women that enter into prison every year, we do ourselves a great disservice. By ignoring the abuse and blatant mistreatment of some of the most marginalized people in our society, we participate in the creation of a dangerous power dynamic, one that takes punishment beyond ethical limits.

But why is this? How can we so blissfully ignore such a huge swath of people and the abuse of their rights? Why is this okay, on any level?

Some of the most flagrant systemic abuses happen within our prisons, and we don’t particularly care. When I talk about the punishment of prisoners, a common refrain I hear goes something like this: “Well, they committed a crime, and they deserve to be punished.” It is, in my personal experience, the most widespread perception about prisoners. We see them as bad people, those who deserve to be punished. And yet, it also serves to note that this is somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction: crime and punishment are so closely wedded in our minds that to even question the assumptions that link them is unthinkable.

Part of the reason for this can be found in the constant images of prisons, crime, and criminals that we are subjected to. Be it crime novels, prison shows, detective shows, movies involving gangs, the mafia, or murderers, exposés, and documentaries, and so on, we are used to seeing crime all over the media. Prison films even constitute their own genre. These images and narratives of prison, and, by extension criminals that occupy them, completely normalize the idea of the prison as the place we must send our ‘evildoers’ to.

Aside from fictional narratives of crime and prisons, the media itself also devotes a great deal of time to crime coverage. According to Mother Jones and The Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., during the 1990s crime was the number-one element of coverage on nightly news: while homicide rates dropped by half over a period of eight years, homicide stories on the three major networks rose three-fold. Surrounded by such exploitative images, it is no wonder that the public feels it needs to be protected, and support tough-on-crime measures no matter the ethical, financial, and social costs to society.

Only once we begin to question our underlying assumptions about the prison system can we begin to have a real discussion about inhumane prison practices like solitary confinement. If we continue to support ideas dictating that the only thing criminals are worthy of is punishment, then marginal reforms might be possible, but are more likely to fall short of anything meaningful. We must question the power dynamics that underlie our prison system, for if we automatically assume that all crime is worthy of harsh punishment, then we allow room for those in power to abuse – with our consent. Remember that a society will always be judged based upon how it treats its weakest members. Prisoners are no exception.

Molly Korab is a U2 International Development and Political Science student. She can be reached at