RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a big debate in this country over the future of our overcrowded prisons. One of the thorniest issues is the detention of roughly 80,000 Americans in solitary confinement. Many spend years or even decades in isolation. Last month, President Obama posed this question at a meeting of the NAACP.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, for months, sometimes for years at a time? That is not going to make us safer.
MARTIN: This morning, we're asking another question. How did the U.S. come to rely so heavily on this extreme form of incarceration? North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In the yard at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, gray-haired men are making their way up to a small stage. A towering stone prison wall rises overhead. One by one, they sit at a scratchy microphone and tell their stories.
BILL BORDEN: Yes, what I remember is being locked up around there in 14 block 23 hours a day. It wasn't a pleasant stay.
MANN: That's Bill Borden, who did time here in the 1960s. He says he was allowed out of his cell one hour each day to play softball. Another former inmate, Anthony Goodman, leans forward and talks about the loneliness, the isolation.
ANTHONY GOODMAN: This institution here, I thought it would have had broke me. You know, this place here really did something to me psychologically.
MANN: Eastern State is a museum now. But this is the prison where solitary confinement was pioneered in the U.S. Today's reunion here in Philadelphia is a chance for former inmates to talk about what it meant to do time here.
GOODMAN: Because this place would make you go insane if you didn't know how to handle it.
MANN: One of the elderly men who takes the microphone is Fred Kellner. He wasn't a prisoner here. He was psychiatrist charged with looking after the mental health of men like Borden and Goodman. He says he knew conditions at Eastern State were hurting people, but he felt powerless.
FRED KELLNER: I remember being bothered by various situations. You can't do much about it because the most important thing in a prison is control. And that rules. If you expect to change it, you're in for depression.
MANN: Here's one of the first things you learn when you study the history of solitary confinement. People have had doubts about isolating inmates for a really long time. The earliest experiments were carried out here at Eastern State in the 1800s.
SEAN KELLEY: We're in a cell in cellblock seven. The inmate living in this cell would be in this room for 23 hours a day.
MANN: Sean Kelley, director of education, shows me the tiny, monastic cells. It looks like a medieval dungeon. But he says at first, people really believed that isolating criminals for long periods might help them heal, make them more virtuous. Critics didn't buy it. The British author and activist Charles Dickens, who visited in the 1840s, described long-term isolation as ghastly, a form of torture. Kelly says the people running Eastern State didn't listen. Decade after decade, they kept trying to make the system work.
KELLEY: The officers and the administrators would write about the inmates becoming agitated. They would carry out really extreme physical punishments to maintain silence. They would literally put them in straightjackets, douse them in water in the wintertime and leave them outdoors.
MANN: Stories like that led to solitary confinement being widely discredited here in the U.S. and around the world. Beginning in the early 1900s, long-term isolation was used rarely, with the most dangerous inmates and usually only for short periods, a week or two. But Kelley says the idea had woven itself deep into DNA of American prisons.
KELLEY: It is shocking to see that we've gone back to it, that there are tens of thousands - they say 80,000 - people on a given day living in solitary confinement in the United States. And we're used to talking about this being an historical practice. But it has all come back around.
MANN: The big revival came in the 1980s and '90s. The drug war sent a tidal wave of inmates surging into state and federal correctional facilities. There were riots, gang violence and assaults on guards. Prison officials looking for a quick fix started building new isolation wards in prisons. And they also designed an entirely new kind of prison, known as a supermax correctional facility. These are separate prisons that function very much like Eastern State Penitentiary did in the 1800s, locking inmates in cells for 23 hours a day with little interaction with guards or other prisoners. Nazgol Ghandnoosh, with a group called The Sentencing Project, says solitary confinement is now hardwired into the architecture of America prisons.
NAZGOL GHANDNOOSH: Right now there are at least 20 supermax prisons. And they hold 20,000 people. In one of the prisons in California, for example, Pelican Bay, half of the prison population - 500 people - have been there for over 10 years.
MANN: Some inmates have been confined in solitary for 20, 30, even 40 years at a time. The practice is now such a standard disciplinary tool in the U.S. that even nonviolent inmates are often placed in isolation for months at a time.
JUAN MENDEZ: And I think it's very important for prison authorities and for the public to reflect on whether it's humane to subject people to this form of isolation that play havoc with people's sanity.
MANN: Juan Mendez is a special investigator on human rights with the United Nations. He's worked extensively on the issue of America's system of solitary confinement. It's common, Mendez says, for prisons in the U.S. to hold young people, inmates with mental illness and pregnant mothers in long-term isolation.
MENDEZ: The psychiatric and medical literature is very clear. Deprivation of social - of meaningful social contact does create pain and suffering.
MANN: Studies show that solitary confinement can lead to higher rates of suicides and other forms of mental illness, even in modern prisons, where inmates in segregation cells are sometimes allowed radios or televisions. Those findings have led top prison administrators, like Greg Marcantel in New Mexico, to look for new ways to scale it back.
GREG MARCANTEL: It's very, very easy to overuse segregation. I mean, for a guy like me, it's safe, right? It's safe. If these prisons are quiet, I don't get fired.
MANN: In all, a dozen states are looking to reform the way they use solitary confinement. We'll hear more about that tomorrow during Morning Edition. But here's a sign of how hard it might be to shift away from long-term isolation in American prisons. Even as President Obama was condemning the use of solitary confinement, his administration is finishing construction of a new, $200 million supermax correctional facility in Illinois. Its hundreds of isolation cells are expected to begin holding inmates next year. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
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