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Anne Birk is a Danish criminologist who says that the purpose of Danish prisons “is not to make the inmates’ lives as miserable as possible. Instead, Danish prisons strive for the goal of normalization. The prisons are designed to closely resemble life on the outside,” an idea she calls “re-socialization.” (Toll) The normalization in these prisons, “is not about normalizing the prisoner; it is about normalizing the prison conditions.” (Toll) American prisons have almost ten times the amount of prisoners that Denmark has. (International) It is estimated that tens of thousands of these American prisoners are in solitary confinement. (Goode) Solitary confinement supposed purpose is to confine uncontrollable prisoners, but in many cases those prisoners would function equally as well in less controlled environments. In fact, “isolation [is] likely to produce mental illness as remorse.” (Goode) This makes isolation itself a perpetuator of isolation, “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.” (Goode)

American prisons should restrict inmates in the same way citizens are restricted when they function in society. Isolation by its nature does not provide any form of “re-socialization” (Toll), and only encourages the prisoner to reach more into themselves instead of a community.

Eastern State Penitentiary was a major influence on America’s modern mass use of isolation in prisons. Eastern State’s isolation system was first meant to “break the prisoner’s spirit,” until they would “beg for work and confess their guilt.” After the prisoner had done this they would be allowed to “work in their cell or read the Bible.” Prisoners’ “only reward for hard work [was] existential. Work for the sake of work was not a concept prisoners eagerly embraced.” (Janofsky 111) The prisoners were theoretically supposed to eat, sleep, work, and read when “instructed” while being in silence. (Janofsky 2) Eastern State “never functioned as [the] silent reformatory” (Janofsky 121) of it’s original vision. The prisoners found various ways to subvert their intended environment by communicating with each other and the guards. This communication eventually eroded Eastern State’s isolation system, resulting in organized sports and a shared dining hall for the prisoners. (Eastern) Even though the solitary confinement system collapsed at Eastern State, the prison has had a major influence on the American prisons use of Isolation.           

One reason why isolation is popular in modern American prisons is its use as a disciplinary tool. People grow stronger in greater numbers; and prisoners have of greater potential of forming healthy bonds and patterns when they are put together in large numbers. However, prisoners coming together can be perceived as a potential threat to the prison guards. It is also a loss of power on the guards’ part not to be able to put inmates away, “Not because [the prisoners] highly dangerous, but because they [are] a nuisance.” (Goode)

A situation where a prison gave up the overuse of solitary confinement is Mississippi State Penitentiary Unit 32. Unit 32 was a “super-maximum-security prison” that had “solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day” (Goode) under inhumane conditions. In the summer of 2007, the prison had an increase in gang tension with two stabbings and one suicide. In response, the prison loosened its restrictions rather than tightening them. Inmates were then let outside of their cells more, and allowed to use a basketball court and group-dining hall (like the later Eastern State Penitentiary). The prison also installed programs where inmates could work their way to greater privileges. This resulted in a decrease in violence and a shift of prisoners into the “general population” of the prison. This improvement enabled the prisoners to be transferred to lower security prisons; which brought on the eventual closing of the Unit 32 prison. (Goode)

Many of the Unit 32 guards “resigned in protest…[and] a few were fired,” when the isolation reforms were first implemented. Mr. Sparkman, the deputy corrections commissioner who initiated the reforms, said this about the transition, “Was it scary? Absolutely, but it worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.” Despite the concept of treating prisoners more like humans being a risk for Unit 32, they were able to implement a positive change in the prison by decreasing isolation, making it more like Denmark’s system. However, Denmark and America have many differences as Birk says, “[In Denmark] we don’t smile [at one another]; we look into the earth. I think it is because we trust other people… We don’t need to show that we are good people.” (Toll) and, “Violent crime is not an issue in Denmark…the state is able to provide such a safety net for its people that citizens don’t have to resort to crime to get by.” (Toll) Birk points out that “different prison systems are necessary” (Toll) because of the difference in culture between the two countries. It cannot be expected that American Prison’s could be as effective as Denmark’s prisons, because prisons reflect the culture of the country. However, prisons are a piece of culture that can help to subvert the culture as a whole by implementing “re-socialization.” (Toll)



Eastern State Penitentiary. History of Eastern State. Philadelphia, PA. 10 Nov. 2013


Goode, Erica. “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity” New York Times 10 Nov. 2013. 10 Mar. 2012.


International Centre for Prison Studies. Entire world - Prison Population Rates per 100,000 of the national population London. 10 Nov. 2013.


Janofsky, Jennifer Lawrence. “Buried Lives: Incarceration in Early America” Ed. Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell. The University of Georgia Press Athens and London. 2012.


Toll, Dylan. Danish Open Prison System Shows Different Understanding of Crime” Whitman Pioneer 10 Nov. 2013. 17 Mar. 2013.