As I rode the subway this morning to my job in a research lab at N.Y.U., my phone buzzed with a barrage of e-mails from the veterinary staff, discussing how to deal with the temperature of the animal suite. It was 76 degrees—a mere four degrees above the normal range. This level of concern for the housing conditions of our lab animals is typical.
At the same time, prisons in the United States commonly hold people in jail cells the size of a parking space for 22-plus hours per day, with no windows, no human contact and no specified end date for the isolation. Unlike lab animals, which are protected by law when it comes to their health and well-being, the treatment of people in solitary confinement requires no reporting to, let alone consulting with, any oversight committee.
It’s fantastic that lawmakers, scientists, and the public are beginning to acknowledge the devastating impacts of solitary confinement. But before getting lost in details about what kind of damage accrues after how long, let’s consider the striking differences between the regulatory structure overseeing the housing of humans in prison as compared to that for animals in research labs.
Back in the 1960s, the federal government passed the Animal Welfare Act, which set up a formal structure for creating and enforcing rules for the care of animals in research. The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, casually referred to simply as “The Guide,” is a 200-page document that specifies each detail of animal care. For many species, social housing is mandated: “social interactions … are essential to normal development and wellbeing.” An animal may only be housed alone in extenuating circumstances—if it’s sick, for example, or if the project requires isolation as an experimental variable. In these cases, a veterinarian has to monitor the animal and keep solitary confinement to the minimum period necessary. The Guide even suggests that when social housing is not possible, the lab provide “visual, auditory olfactory, and tactile contact with compatible [companions].”
These guidelines are not just for show. There are multiple layers of oversight, to ensure labs treat animals in accordance with these standards. In order for an institution to perform animal research, it should obtain accreditation from an international organization called AALCAC (the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care) which is an extensive process. As part of maintaining accreditation, each institution must have a local regulatory body called the IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee). For every experiment, investigators must write an animal-use protocol, describing any detail related to the treatment of animals, for the IACUC to review and approve. All new hires, even undergraduate volunteers, must complete training before they can touch an animal.
But wait—there’s more. Grant applications require an entire section dedicated to proving that proper care standards exist at the institution. Both the IACUC and AAALAC audit the labs regularly. Some visits are scheduled, and some are unannounced. Violations are treated seriously; they can endanger the institution’s funding and permission to do research.
So why can’t we similarly oversee the quality of life for people in prison? People who oppose increased regulation for solitary confinement argue that it is necessary for deterring misbehavior and controlling the most violent people in prisons. But data do not support these arguments. After South Dakota and Mississippi reduced the use of solitary confinement, rates of violence actually decreased.
The body of empirical evidence demonstrating the impact of solitary confinement on human health is relatively new and still building. Interestingly, the impetus for passing the Animal Welfare Act came not from data but from strong public opinion. Only subsequently did we confirm the effects on animals’ behavior and the changes in their brains. In fact, scientists also discovered that solitary housing is a reliable and powerful method for creating research models of psychological disorders like depression and anxiety.
Knowing all of this, it’s shameful that we as a society are not at least as thoughtful about ensuring healthy housing conditions for humans in prison as we are for animals in the lab.