Wilhelm Reich had personal experience with the American prison system when he was incarcerated at Ellis Island, New York, in 1941 – 1942; in Danbury, Connecticut, for twelve days in 1957; and finally in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1957. Upon release from his detention as a suspected “enemy alien” at Ellis Island from December 12, 1941, to January 5, 1942, Reich wrote about the emotional and physical misery that he suffered, saying that it “…undoubtedly affects the life apparatus like toxic poisoning. Rage must be curbed, crying suppressed, sexual excitation is displaced or very painfully endured. The life apparatus is subjected to an extreme exertion, to an energy stasis, which expresses itself in spasmodic shivering (trembling). The trembling goes out from the solar plexus” (1:225).
In 1957, during his final imprisonment at Lewisburg Penitentiary, he wrote about men and women being “railroaded into prisons” through “pranking up their environments.” (1:241). He felt he would not survive his sentence and he in fact died in the penitentiary.
Wilhelm Reich escorted to prison, March 1957
Currently there are about two million people, many of them juveniles, behind bars in the United States. The United States has the largest incarceration rate of any country in the world and, unfortunately, some of this mass incarceration rate reflects the problem of the “school to prison pipeline.” Prison conditions vary, with some prisoners enduring beatings and rape while some who are incarcerated for white collar crimes have better surroundings. About ten thousand children are housed in adult prisons where they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and more prone to suicide than children housed with other young people (2: 152). Some are in solitary confinement, which is considered to be one of the most difficult punishments to endure in prison, sometimes leading to suicide attempts (3: 442-443).
Wilhelm Reich strongly advocated emotional contact between children and caring, loving adults, recognizing the deep psychological damage that results without that closeness (4). Reich’s colleague, the highly respected educator, A. S. Neill, established the Summerhill School, basing it on the assumption that children, including children with behavioral problems, should be nourished rather than punished, and certainly not isolated socially or physically (5).
For many years, the American prison system has contradicted these principles by putting juveniles in solitary confinement. This practice has been labelled “torture” by human rights organizations. Numerous studies have found that solitary confinement causes serious psychological damage and physicians document negative medical consequences as well.
Although there are many negatives about the current patterns of incarceration, there has been progress on the issue of solitary confinement as it has been acknowledged and addressed by President Obama. On January 25, 2016, the president banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison. (He also limited its use for adults.) Not only is this important for juveniles, but hopefully it will encourage a re-examination of this practice in all American jails and prisons. President Obama said “he hoped his reforms at the federal level will serve as a model for states to rethink their rules on the issue” (6).
Reich always argued for freedom for young people. In his book The Sexual Revolution, he noted the problems that juveniles face when they are put in the hands of the police, recognizing that some young people had been “psychically healthy and endowed with rational rebellion up to the moment they fell into the clutches of the police and the welfare authorities. From that moment on, they became psychopaths and were socially ostracized” (7:257). Although he was writing about conditions in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he understood that the system for handling juvenile crime was not solving the problem of juvenile delinquency.
There have been victories in the U.S. courts in the last few years for a more rational treatment of juveniles. Until 2005, juveniles could be given the death penalty, but in that year, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the death penalty for juveniles (8). Until 2010, a child might commit a crime, be convicted, and even if rehabilitated while serving the sentence, not be allowed a hearing for parole. In essence, some juveniles were being condemned to die in prison. “In 2010 in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was… unconstitutional, but only for crimes that did not involve killing” (8).
In 2012, the Supreme Court had ruled in Miller v Alabama “that automatic life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Life-without-parole sentences would remain permissible, the court said, but only after individualized consideration” (8). However, it was left to each state to decide whether to apply the ruling retroactively. In a January, 2016 decision regarding Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court “ruled that its 2012 decision banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively, granting a new chance at release for hundreds of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed in their youth” (8). This will provide the opportunity for juveniles who are incarcerated to prove that they can change, that they can be rehabilitated, and therefore could be freed from a life and death in prison.
Scientific research shows that the adolescent brain is not fully mature and often not capable of making the kinds of responsible decision that are expected of adults. Unfortunately, adolescent lack of judgment and foresight is compounded by the fact that many young people have troubled lives, growing up in poverty and drug-infested communities, with mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and inadequate parenting. Some make decisions with horrendous consequences for themselves and others. Reich argued for the rational treatment of juveniles who have gotten into trouble. These recent court decisions show progress in the right direction.
1. Reich, W.: Where’s the Truth, Letters and Journals, 1948-1957, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012.
2. Stevenson, B.: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015
3. Kaba, F., Lewis, A., Glowa-Kollisch, S., Hadler, J., Lee, D., Alper, H., Selling, D., MacDonald, R. Solimo, A., Parsons, A. and Venters, H.: Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self Harm Among Jail Inmates, American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 3, 2014, pages 442- 447.
4. Reich, W.: Children of the Future: On the Prevention of Sexual Pathology, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.
5. Neill, A. S.: Summerhill: A New View of Childhood, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
6. Eilperin, J.: Obama Bans Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Prisons, The Washington Post, January 26, 2016.
7. Reich, W.: The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure, 3rd Edition, New York, Orgone Institute Press, 1945.
8. Piptak, A.: Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder, The New York Times, January 26, 2016.