During my freshman year of college, I signed up for a class called ‘Criminal Justice in America.’ The first day of class, the professor announced that the course would stray from an emphasis on contemporary criminal justice in order to focus more heavily on the historical, intellectual, and philosophical development of punishment in the Western world. Throughout the course, we read Foucault, Camus, Bentham, and others alongside religious texts, supreme court cases, and first hand accounts from the inside of the prison system. The readings, lectures, and discussions from that class have played a formative role in my own understanding of justice and punishment.
In the March 30 issue of the New Yorker, there was a really provocative article on isolation in our prison system (“Hellhole” by Atul Gawande). The article begins with a discussion of the human need for community, offering Harry Harlow’s experiments on monkey’s at my alma mater (Univ. of Wisconsin) as evidence to this need. Gawande then offers several case studies which indicate the extent to which solitary confinement are torturous and physically and psychologically devastating to the inmates who are sentenced to extended periods of isolation.
It’s a fascinating article on a very troubling issue. You can find it online here.