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The Experiment That Continues to Fail

What the prison system can teach us about isolation.

Published on:
February 11, 2021
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5 min.
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The Washington Post tells a poignant story of a sixty-three-year-old woman, Denise Goerke, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Since the start of the pandemic she has “lost 16 pounds, cannot form simple sentences, and no longer recognizes the voices of her children.”[1]

“If only Dan Goerke could hold his wife’s hand. Maybe she would talk again. Maybe she would look at him and smile as she used to. Maybe she would eat and stop wasting away . . . Goerke, 61, could tell the isolation was killing his wife, and there was nothing he could do but watch. ‘Every day it gets a little worse,’ he said. ‘We’ve lost months, maybe years of her already.’”[2]

While Covid-19 may kill care facility residents quickly, isolation will surely kill them slowly.

While Covid-19 may kill care facility residents quickly, isolation will surely kill them slowly. Patients that have been stable for years are suddenly medically and emotionally fragile. In the same Washington Post article from September, the journalist analyzed the federal data on deaths caused by Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients and found that in 2020 that number was already 13,000 over what was expected. That statistic came out when there were three months left of the calendar year. 

We in my extended family have our own stories of isolation policies that hurt the vulnerable. My uncle died with no family members around him, no one by his side. Staff members were outside the door of his assisted living facility, but his own children were not allowed in. My mother, hospitalized in an ICU in October, could have no visitors. She recently talked with me about how hard it was to be alone. “There was no one to sit with me, to pray with me, to be present. I was all alone.” True, there were staff zealous for her physical wellbeing, but they too were not able to just sit, to hold her hand, to be present.

Because of the ongoing nature of the pandemic, we are just beginning to see studies that show the damage of isolation on the vulnerable and the society at large during Covid-19, but I would argue that we already have plenty of evidence from our prison system showing the damage that isolation brings about to the human psyche. 

The Experiment That Continues to Fail

At Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1829, the United States undertook the first experiment in solitary confinement. History tells us that the experiment was based on a belief the Quakers had that if a person is isolated with only their Bible, they would use the time to repent and pray.[3] The time would lead to greater introspection and, thus, a change in behavior. The Quaker belief proved to be false. Instead, Eastern State Penitentiary found suicide and insanity accompanied solitary confinement. Those inmates who spent time in solitary confinement and did survive were unlikely to ever function in society again. 

Sixty-one years later, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller explained as much in a Supreme Court opinion:

“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”[4]

That was 1890, and despite the Supreme Court opinion, solitary confinement did not end. In subsequent years the United States Penal System would see Alcatraz open the infamous “D Block” where the worst criminals were kept in isolation 24 hours a day; Pelican Bay—a prison built specifically to house inmates in isolation for over tweny-two hours a day; and other “Supermax” centers that had specifically built isolation units across the nation. 

The Department of Justice completed a report in 1999 that found thirty states were operating Supermax facilities with significant isolation units. In 2005 a Florida State University professor, Daniel Mears, found that forty states had Supermax facilities housing over 25,000 criminals in isolation. 

The sheer number is eye-popping, but the human rights piece is heart-stopping. Despite knowing that the most likely outcome of solitary confinement is insanity, suicide, and an inability to achieve previously possible levels of human flourishing, the practice continues in our prison system. 

In 2020 we have seen a shadow of solitary confinement implemented outside of the prison system—one that many argue is necessary. Desiring to keep the vulnerable safe from the coronavirus is noble, even honorable. But with over a century of evidence showing how harmful isolation proves to be, we have to ask if isolation at all costs for our most vulnerable during this pandemic year is the best way to help them.

Our Critical Need for Protection and People

As a public health nurse, I believe in the germ theory, in masks, and in Covid-19 as an infectious disease. I believe in handwashing and protecting the vulnerable. As a public health nurse, I know the statistics are not lying about the havoc wreaked during this pandemic, nor are they lying about the damage that social isolation is causing. There is a critical need for protection and mitigation, and I also believe there is a critical need for community and connection. 

As image bearers, we too are relational, communal people, and whether we’re conscious of the presence of another or not, we need them.

As a Christian, I know a God of community and relationships. I grew up in a country that held a high view of tribe, family, and community. I was raised in an expat community that mirrored that high view of community and the challenges that came along with it. I was shaped into adulthood by this relational God and met him through the church and the Eucharist. The Orthodox community that I am now a part of has continued to shape me, all the while teaching me more of how much God values intimacy, connection, communication. Icons, the Eucharist, and the communion of the saints as well as being part of a living, breathing body that is larger than myself all contribute to this shaping and becoming. I know a relational God. As image bearers, we too are relational, communal people, and whether we’re conscious of the presence of another or not, we need them. 

As I consider the nature of God and the toll of isolation on all people, I can’t reconcile solitary confinement and isolation—in all its variations—with my faith. I pray daily for those who are isolated—those who are dying from loneliness. I pray that God’s immeasurable love will permeate through the walls of isolation and reach those we can’t physically reach. I pray the words of a hymn I learned as a child:

“The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell; 

It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell . . .

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made;

Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade.

To write the love of God above, would drain the ocean dry;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.

O love of God, how rich and pure, how measureless and strong;

It shall for evermore endure, the Saints’ and Angels’ song.”[5] 

Marilyn Gardner
Marilyn Gardner is a public health nurse and writer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is passionate about public health programs that can help transform communities. She is author of two books, Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and a recently released memoir Passages Through Pakistan, An American Girl’s Journey of Faith and can be found writing at Communicating Across Boundaries.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/09/16/coronavirus-dementia-alzheimers-deaths/?arc404=true

[2] Washington Post, September 16,2020 “Pandemic isolation has killed thousands of Alzheimer’s patients while families watch from afar”

[3] Adamson, C. (2001). Evangelical Quakerism and the Early American Penitentiary Revisited: The Contributions of Thomas Eddy, Roberts Vaux, John Griscom, Stephen Grellet, Elisha Bates, and Isaac Hopper. Quaker History, 90(2), 35-58. Retrieved February 5, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41947469

[4] See In re Medley, 134 U. S. 160, 168 (1890) as quoted in https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-1284_8mjp.pdf

[5] "The Love of God" by Frederick Lehman, 1917

[6] Cover image by Ron McClenny.

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