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Solitary Confinement and the Goals of Prisons

Updated on November 20, 2016

On September, 4 2016, the National Public Radio Station conducted an interview of the man in charge of the New Mexico State Penitentiary, as well as the Secretary of Corrections in that state, Gregg Marcantel. They titled the interview, conducted by Rachel Martin, To Reform Prison System Corrections Officer Put Himself in Solitary Confinement. In this interview, Marcantel talks about “his unorthodox approach towards reforming the state’s prison system,” particularly in regards to solitary confinement. His stance on solitary confinement seems to be, solitary confinement may not be the most effective or healthy way to rehabilitate the inmates under his supervision based on his observation and own brief experience in solitary confinement. Evans D. Hopkins, in his narrative Lockdown, tells of his experience during a long prison lockdown from the point of view of a prisoner. Although he was not technically in solitary confinement, a four and a half month prison lockdown has its own tolls on prisoners and can feel very similar to solitary confinement. He appears to agree with Marcantel’s stance on solitary confinement and states other mandates prisoners deal with, such as taking away schooling, which stunts their personal rehabilitation. Marcantel and Hopkins both talk about their thoughts regarding the goals of a penitentiary, the negative effects of solitary confinement, and the unrealistically high standard of character prison staff need to possess to excel at their job.

The New Mexico State Penitentiary, which Marcantel supervises, was the site of one of the “bloodiest prison riot(s) in American History” (Marcantel 1). Marcantel shares, “But what can happen if you’re not careful is that your single view of success can be avoiding another riot,” which he implies is not his primary view of success at all. He is clearly trying to avoid prison riots, but his primary goal is to actually rehabilitate his inmates so they can reintegrate themselves into society. He also expresses the mindset involved in “avoiding another riot” is that you learn to “expect them to be violent.” Marcantel states his diagnosis for reforming the prison system is to have the courage to hold inmates accountable for “pro-social prison environments instead of pro-criminal environments” meaning they need to get along with each other and staff and not be so violent. His rationale for putting so much effort into rehabilitation is because the people placed in his prisons are going to “return to our communities.” He seems to feel that rehabilitation is more important than punishing prisoners because he spends significantly more time and energy contemplating and communicating his ideas to help better rehabilitate his prisoners in this interview.

Hopkins also reflects his views of the penitentiary system. When the new Department of Corrections guidelines come out and his most treasured belonging, his typewriter, is taken away, he writes, “I can’t help but feel like I’ve just been robbed. And I’ve most certainly been hurt. Maybe that’s the whole idea, I think -- to injure us, eye for an eye” (144). He’s implying, in this quote, that what the system is doing to him is just as wrong as what he did to get put in jail. He also says how his years in prison “have damaged me more than I want to believe,” and that “self-pity is anathema to the prisoner, and self-doubt is deadly to the writer” (144). If the goal of a penitentiary is to rehabilitate its inmates so they can “return to our communities” as Marcantel says, Hopkins is saying they are doing a poor job. Taking away Hopkins’ books, magazines, tape player, television, and typewriter dealt a lethal blow to his rehabilitation and filled him with self-doubt, self-pity, and in Hopkins’ words, “May throw up a block that I’ll never overcome” (144).

Marcantel wanted to understand what solitary confinement felt like for himself, so he put himself in solitary confinement. His experiment starts by imitating the experience an inmate would get if they’re just “too dangerous” to be put into the general population of the prison. Those inmates still get rights and he got an iPod to listen to and “all of those things.” But halfway through his three days in solitary confinement, he “wanted to be transitioned into a disciplinary setting that is part of a behavior modification plan. And I was reduced to a pen, paper, and a bible” (2). Marcantel is clearly dedicated to his work and is willing to do what it takes to understand the repercussions of solitary confinement. He states, “Even within the short span of three days, I began to run out of things to think about and I then began counting cracks on the wall,” (2) showing how merely three days in solitary confinement can cause your brain to begin withering away to nothing. He goes on to state that though he may not completely understand the effects of solitary confinement from his three day experiment, it did get him “up close and personal” and allowed him to “make better judgements from a policy perspective” (2).

Hopkins, with a more extreme timeframe of punishment, four and a half months, has a very strong idea of how solitary confinement can affect prisoners subjected to it. Hopkins writes, “The four and a half months have taken their toll on everyone. There have been reports of two or three suicides. Some inmates have become unhinged, and can be seen shuffling around, on Thorazine or something” (144). Two or three suicides, being the most extreme effect Hopkins gives, is a completely unacceptable consequence of a lockdown. There is no reason inmates should be killing themselves because three prisoners out of eleven hundred tried to escape four and a half months beforehand. And many of the inmates that didn’t commit suicide, are out of their mind at this point and can’t function in their meagre prison lives. This is a stark contrast to the normal prison life Hopkins describes in the beginning of his narrative, writing, “Visitors to prison often comment on how surprised they are to see men moving around, without apparent constraint,” and how “inmates go about the activities of normal life” (142). They are normally able to experience some sort of life and grow as human beings with the option to rehabilitate themselves. The portrayal of normal prison life gives the impression of a somewhat nurturing environment for rehabilitation as opposed to the gloom experience both Marcantel’s and Hopkins’ share.

Marcantel also talks about the exceptional character required to be a correctional officer. He proclaims, “They have to also be complete enough human beings to invest their time and talent every day into other human beings that most of the world has the luxury of simply throwing away.” He goes on to say, “It’s a risky leap of faith, but it is what’s noble about this work” (2). As the New Mexico Secretary of Corrections, Marcantel supervises the hiring of all the correctional officers in his state. Trying to find someone of such moral rectitude is a “risky leap of faith” and the supply often does not meet the demand. The idea that “most of the world has the luxury of simply throwing away” the inmates serves to show just how challenging it can be to have the compassion necessary to completely fulfill the jobs of a correctional officer on a day-to-day basis. The officers have to “invest their time and talent” into their inmates to help them grow and “return to our communities.” This is a tall order to ask of anyone on a constant basis. It becomes even harder when the officers “have to be ready and willing at the drop of a dime to visit violence if it comes their way” (2). The combination of the compassion officers must show for their inmates and the fact that their inmates could attack them at “the drop of a dime” creates a compelling image of the particular characteristics required to be a correctional officer and how hard to find these outstanding citizens could be.

Hopkins writes about the difference between the compassionate officers in his prison disgusted by the inhumane acts the Department of Corrections implements and the nonchalance of the counsellors and administrative personnel that simply don’t care about the nutrition of their inmates. When Hopkins was being escorted to Personal Property, one of the guards tells him, “He considered transferring to work at another institution, but that the entire system is now going through similar changes.” This particular officer is being forced to follow orders he disagrees with and wants to get out. Unfortunately, the whole system is implementing the same changes so he can’t just transfer to another institution and deal with more humane conditions he would be able to agree with. By the second week of the lockdown, Hopkins writes, “Since counsellors or administrative personnel must do most of the cooking, the lockdown menu usually consists of meals that require minimal culinary skills” showing their lack of empathy for the inmates they are there to serve (142). They just want to get their job done and go home. Quality seemingly means nothing to them at all. They have no concern for the well-being or happiness of their inmates. This contrast between the compassion of the guard and the indifference of the counsellors and administrative personnel demonstrates the “leap of faith” Marcantel refers to in his interview.

Marcantel and Hopkins both agree that humane rehabilitation should be the primary goal of a correctional facility over excessive disciplinary action. They also agree that solitary confinement often causes more harm than good based on both of their personal experiences and Hopkins also shares observations of how he saw other inmates affected by the confinement. Both of these writings are meant to help aid the decision making process of the US Prison System by giving them more first-hand accounts of the effects of solitary confinement. Marcantel in particular makes a call to action for employees of the US Prison System to rise above and beyond the mere basics of the job to serve the public as effectively as possible. Both Marcantel and Hopkins also are trying to convey how, though solitary confinement is easy and inexpensive, the repercussions may outweigh the advantages of such practices. They are also trying to inform the public of the practices used in the US Prison System so they can decide whether they agree, and if not, possibly provide public pressure for change. It’s great to see how thoughtful people on both sides of the bars can agree on so much and both be driven to make a positive difference. They certainly have relatable commentary and experiences of penitentiary staff that shows the caliber of human they believe should be working for the Department of Corrections.

Works Cited

Hopkins, Evans D. "Lockdown." (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in The Prentice Hall Reader. Comp. George Miller. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, 2015. 141-45. Print.

Marcantel, Gregg. "To Reform Prison System, Corrections Officer Put Himself In Solitary Confinement." Interview by Rachel Martin. National Public Radio, 4 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.


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