Not that facts matter anymore, but back when they used to, they had a remarkable ability to drive policy change during public health emergencies, even among unpopular groups of patients. Look no further than famous fact-denier Mike Pence, whose solution of “praying the virus away” was failing to control an HIV outbreak among heroin users in Indiana. Eventually swayed by studies showing that distributing clean needles was the most effective infection-prevention policy, Governor Pence begrudgingly bowed to the altar of fact and lifted the state’s ban on needle-exchange programs, slowing the HIV crisis.
You don’t have to be a brain surgeon (or epidemiologist, as it were) to see how acting on basic public health knowledge can go a long way in keeping society healthy, even the parts of society we tend to cast aside. It’s no surprise then that our failure to act on the facts around solitary confinement has led to a mental health epidemic that reaches well beyond the prison walls. This is the central focus of VICE’s ongoing project streaming live from a solitary cell.
In the US today, there are nearly 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement, where they spend all but an hour a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell, in total isolation. While some solitary sentences—determined not by a court, but by a jury of one’s guards—could last a few days, many continue for years, and almost all produce an inmate in worse psychological condition than when he entered. Since most prisoners will eventually walk free, the current use of solitary has yielded a breeding ground for mental illness that affects millions of Americans.