A Multi-Pronged Approach Toward the Eradication of Solitary Confinement

Joseph M. Wronka, Professor of Social Work, Springfield College


(Submitted to the newsletter for Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC)


In brief, an advanced generalist practice approach means the application of multi-pronged levels of intervention to eradicate social and/or individual malaise, thus ultimately promoting well-being by the satisfactory fulfillment of human need.  Such levels of intervention can be defined as the: (1) meta-macro, “an area of practice requiring intervention on a global scale… undercutting fundamental assumptions, such as the nation state…”; (2) macro “sometimes referred to as primary prevention, an area of practice that deals with whole populations, generally on the national level”; (3) mezzo “sometimes referred to as secondary intervention,  an area of practice requiring professional involvement with at-risk populations and reflecting a failure of whole population approaches”; (4) micro “sometimes referred to as primary intervention, an area of practice requiring professional involvement with clinical populations, whose symptoms often reflect shortcomings of previous levels of intervention; (5) meta-micro “an area of practice requiring interventions often divorced from professionalism per se that take place, by and large, in a person’s everyday interactions with the world, broadly defined” (Wronka, 2017, p. 377).  Research, in turn, sometimes referred to as a quarternary intervention provides input into the previous levels to move toward best practice models.  It can be either quantitative which “uses mathematics and statistical analysis as a basis of understanding” or qualitative which is “a phenomenon-bound, rather than technique-bound form of research that attempts to elicit meaning in human experience” (p. 388).

To be sure, demarcations among those levels are often imprecise, if not blurred, but can nevertheless provide necessary contours to effectively intervene in a social issue, in this case, solitary confinement.  The metaphor of extinguishing the fire of a burning ship, rather than attempting to save people on the verge of drowning may be appropriate here.  Certainly, it is necessary and important to save people from drowning, a reactive strategy, but it would also be important to work proactively and put out the fire in the first place.

Attacking the problem of solitary confinement on the meta-macro would mean, in brief, to have a global vision, that solitary confinement is not a problem that just exists in the nation of the United States of America.  It is a global problem that has crept up over the last two decades perhaps in regard to a global “youth bulge,” a growing lack of employment opportunities with a trend toward privatization (from the Latin privare meaning “to rob”), along with a growing populism worldwide and far right pundits, not only Trump, but also for instance, Modi in India, Duterte in the Phillipines, and Duda of Poland.  Such an approach in reminiscent of Dr. King’s words, writing alone in his cell, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Thus, if a main predictor of imprisonment is unemployment, then social workers and activists in general must work toward implementing the United Nations Charter which commits member states to the promotion of full employment, an important and proactive strategy.  Certainly, this level, as with the other levels whose boundaries are often blurred, has numerous problems, struggles if you will. In the United States, for instance, as evidenced in part by the U.S. failure to ratify the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), a progeny of the U.N. Charter, many feel that the U.N.’s policies might interfere with domestic sovereignty, an absurdity in my view as the purpose of  U.N. initiatives is largely to promote a creative dialogue among nations to assess and evaluate their policies in light of the collective wisdom of the global community.  Only chosen values endure. No one can force on any one what can be described as a “human rights culture” a lived awareness of human rights principles in one’s mind and heart and dragged into one’s everyday labors (Creating a human rights culture, 2019).

On the macro level, social activists can organize to add a right to full employment on the federal and state constitution, thus heeding the words of former Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis that states ought to act as “laboratories of democracy,” to further rights not found in the U.S. Constitution.  In 2019 with the Trump administration touting record lows in unemployment, however, activists ought to consider such an amendment to include the definition of employment by the U.S. delegation to the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which would include socially useful work that contributes to the development of the human personality and enhances purchasing power (Wronka, 1998).  Data generally tend to indicate that such growth of jobs are low paying and of questionable utility.  With the failure of the equal rights amendment in the 1980’s, it is easy to see many of the challenges, such as massive education as to the nature of human rights are and massive organizing to add such a right to U.S. constitutions, expensive and time-consuming undertakings.

On the mezzo level, collective bargaining and work where workers can grow, not underemployment, also human rights principles, could assist in not having people “fall through the cracks” so to speak, become unemployed, and desperate to find ways to support themselves and their families.  It is an understatement also that minorities tend to fill prisons disproportionately to the entire population in the U.S, if not globally.  Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, increasingly referred to as customary international law, which prohibits discrimination, among other things, on the basis of race and class needs to be taught in all schools from the grammar to professional levels. Law enforcement personnel need training as to how subtly or not so subtly they may be harsher upon minorities, if which solitary confinement is but one example.  May I recommend here the U.N. document on Human Rights and Law Enforcement (2004) which speaks among other things of the importance of transforming one’s character to abide by human rights principles.  Here also, is where the Mandela Rules (2015) a revised statement of the 1955 U.N. Minimal Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which now clearly defines solitary confinement and limitations on its use needs to serve as guidelines for policy and practice for all those involved in the prison system.  It has defined such confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. Prolonged solitary confinement shall refer to solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days” prohibiting such things as corporal punishment, totally dark or lit cells, or its use with those having mental of physical disabilities, which would exacerbate their disabilities.  These rules thus need to be instilled so that at-risk populations do not find themselves in such torturous conditions, such as the kind of solitary confinement that has emerged today.

The micro level emphasizes clinical interventions necessary to help those who have become victims of solitary confinement needing reintegration at least into the prison community and eventually the society at large. Indeed, such confinement is tantamount to torture and “often exacerbates existing psychiatric conditions and not infrequently leads to suicide. In Texas, for example, suicides rates for those in solitary confinement are five times higher than that of the general prison community. Given that the U.S. has 10 times as many people with mental illnesses in jails than in state hospitals, the use of isolation for people with mental illnesses is beyond troubling” (Boyd, 2018, p.1).  It is an understatement to say that helping and health personnel need to apply clinical skills in dealing with trauma, anxiety and depression, suicide ideation if not gesture, and as appropriate the administration of medication to deal with possible hallucinations and paranoia.

The meta-micro level recognizes that people can heal without necessarily the help of professionals, making note of such self-help groups as alcoholics and narcotics anonymous, emotions anonymous, depression anonymous, and love and sex addicts anonymous.  Each of these groups, if not those that deal with survivors of solitary can serve as effective forums for inmates and former prisoners needing to integrate into society to eke out ways they can emerge from such torturous circumstances and lead productive lives. This level may be seen as negating professionalism, but it is not.  It merely proposes that there can be alternative ways of helping. Very briefly, research merely examines best and worst practice models of each level of intervention, all data indicating that solitary confinement in its egregious forms can be debilitating and torturous.

No matter how one looks at it, social justice, with human rights at its core is a struggle.  We must put out the burning ship, working proactively and also pull potentially drowning bodies from the waters, working reactively.  We must thus implement human rights principles to prevent the potential for solitary confinement in the first place, yet also learn effective helping strategies to those falling prey to the ravages of such a barbarous practice.




Boyd, J. (2018) Solitary confinement: Torture pure and simple. At: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/almost-addicted/201801/solitary-confinement-torture-pure-and-simple


Creating a Human Rights Culture. (2019). Website for Dr. Joseph Wronka. At: www.humanrightsculture.org


Mandela Rules. (2015). At: http://solitaryconfinement.org/mandela-rules


United Nations. (2004). Human rights and law enforcement. At: https://gsdrc.org/document-library/human-rights-and-law-enforcement-a-manual-on-human-rights-training-for-the-police/


Wronka, J. (1998).  Human rights and social policy in the 21st century:  A comparison of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with United States federal and state constitutions.  Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Human-Rights-Social-Policy-Century/dp/0761810110/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1546811985&sr=8-3&keywords=joseph+wronka


Wronka, J. (2017). Human rights and social justice: Social action and service for the helping and health professions. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.  Available at: https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/human-rights-and-social-justice/book245381


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What do you think?

You may also wish to look at his other quotes and comment as you see fit.  Thanks

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/j_william_fulbright

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Dear Editor:

Your article “How the human rights movement failed” (April 23), shows a mis understanding of what human rights is.  Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch certainly do good work, but their emphases, by and large, on civil rights  does tend to be narrow. Rights are interdependent meaning one cannot speak about one set of  rights, such as civil rights, like freedom of speech without speaking about economic  rights, like the right to employment, and even solidarity rights, like the right to peace. What, after all, is freedom of speech to a person who is unemployed, homeless or lives in a world at war? Indeed, it was Dr. King who said “The era of civil rights is over.  The human rights era has begun.”  Saint John Paul II said, furthermore, that “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights [the authoritative definition of human rights standards] ought to be lived in letter and in spirit.”  Saying the human rights movement has failed, means that one should not take seriously fundamental values found in most spiritual traditions, such as duties to our neighbor and treating others like we would like to be treated.  If  the Universal Declaration were taught to our youth, many of the values it speaks to, such as human dignity and non-discrimination, which mirror such traditions, would be lived eventually and mirrored in socially just policies, which continue to be a rallying cry throughout the world.

What do you think?


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