Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Cruelty and Context



I've always been struck by the similarity between solitary confinement inmates and monks. Historically, monks were kept under the vow of silence. They could only leave their cells to attend religious services. The only visitors they were allowed to have were their religious advisors. (If any of you have seen the movie Into Great Silence you'll know what I'm talking about.)  The idea of the modern penitentiary came from this 'penitence' process: put someone in a room by himself, give him religious guidance while he's there and he'll reflect, repent and reform. This was how prisons were run in the Nineteenth Century too: prisoners were kept under the rule of silence and they could only come out of their cells for religious services or for work. No one ever alleged that monks became psychotic because of this though.

Then there's the psychiatric seclusion room. Again, a bare cell with a bed or a mattress, no visitors, no clothes except a hospital gown. There is no 'vow of silence' or 'rule of silence' though.

So what makes the difference between the prison segregation cell, the monk's cell and the psychiatric seclusion room?

Off the top of my head, the obvious one would be the 'voluntariness' (if that's the word) of the confinement. (Although some people became monks because it was either that or get thrown into the king's dungeon---crime did compel men into the priesthood!) Other would be the purpose of the confinement. Segregation is a disciplinary action for a misbehaving prisoner, although it could also be used to protect the safety of other inmates in the facility. The purpose of segregation is also, theoretically, reformation (and their is research to show that disciplinary infractions drop off after one or two episodes of segregation). Reformation and enlightenment would be the purpose of the monk's isolation as well. Psychiatric seclusion is used both for the protection of the patient and others.

As we've heard from some of our blog readers, involuntary segregation feels the same regardless of the purpose.