Creating Monsters: How Solitary Confinement Hurts the Rest of Us

A new PBS documentary takes us inside a Maine prison, where inmates and officials are locked in a grim and self-defeating embrace.
Frontline/PBS

You need to watch only the first five minutes of Solitary Nation, the first of two Frontline documentaries that will air on PBS starting Tuesday. The inmates, corrections officers, and prison bureaucrats all appear stooped and burdened, tamped down, by the oppressive nature of the place in which they spend the bulk of their lives. That's what prison is, of course, but Frontline captures something deeper here. 

"This is what they create in here, monsters," one inmate tells Frontline's reporters. "You can't conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal."

"It's like being buried alive," another prisoner says off camera.

Now, every inmate in the history of the world likely has complained about the conditions of his confinement. But the point of the film, I think—and perhaps the best argument against the continued use of solitary—is that regardless of how inmates feel about it, there is no redeemable value to it to the rest of us.

Solitary confinement surely makes prisons safer—that's the argument wardens use over and over again to justify its continued use. But it also creates or exacerbates mental illness in the men who are condemned to it. And that illness, in turn, pushes inmates in solitary to engage in harmful or self-harming conduct that, in turn, prompts a severe disciplinary response from prison officials.

That, in turn, causes the men to turn deeper into their own insanity. And then these broken men are released back into the world without adequate mental health treatment or "step down" services that will help reduce their chances of recidivism. It's a cycle everyone recognizes but cannot seem to change. It's madness upon madness.

Adam Brulotte, one of the inmates featured in the film, gets caught in this cycle. He’s a young man who says he wants to study for his GED so he can get a real job, instead of selling drugs, when he is released. Because he has broken the rules, he is placed in isolation. And because he is in isolation, he goes mad. And because he goes mad, he breaks more rules. The prison is safer but we see Brulotte broken before our eyes. If this young man is not treated now, how much will the rest of us pay when he is ultimately released? 

You don't have to sympathize with the inmates featured in this documentary to appreciate just how broken the prison system is today. Solitary Nation is a valuable addition to the growing body of work that slowly is pushing America away from this form of confinement. It shows the blood and the feces and the numbing foulness of solitary for humanizing both prisoner and guard, and it chronicles the ambiguities that exist in these cases (is the inmate truly mentally ill or just faking it?). 

There are, however, a few critical elements missing from the documentary. Because the stage is set in Maine, I guess, there is virtually no reference to the oppressive racial component to solitary confinement (or to American prisons more generally). Almost every single one of the faces that appears on film is white. Perhaps this means that white viewers will more fully empathize with what they are seeing. But I'd love for the journalists who created Solitary Nation to undertake the same sort of project in a southern prison.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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