Every year, tens of thousands of Americans — some of whom haven't been convicted of a crime — are locked up in solitary confinement cells that are smaller than the bathroom in a typical one-bedroom apartment.
Vocativ's Jennings Brown captured the scale of the average solitary confinement cell — which measures 6 by 9 feet — in comparison to the average one-bedroom apartment, finding that about 19 of these cells could fit in such an apartment.
This is the type of cell Kalief Browder, who recently committed suicide, spent more than 400 days in during his three-year stay at New York City's Rikers Island jail for a crime he was never convicted of.
Solitary confinement involves putting someone in a cell for days, weeks, months, or even years with little to no contact with others. It is often used to discipline wrongdoers in prisons, but it's also deployed to protect inmates from others and segregate groups of people who are causing trouble. Around the country, it is even used to contain juvenile inmates in both youth detention centers and adult prisons.
A large body of research shows that solitary confinement can worsen mental illness and cause it in some circumstances, particularly among younger people whose brains are still developing. Symptoms include hypersensitivity to stimuli, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, anxiety, revenge fantasies, appetite and weight loss, suicidal thoughts, and, in rare situations, lower levels of brain activity.
Some of the research goes back to the 19th century. The early research about the health effects was so convincing that the US Supreme Court confidently stated in 1890 that solitary confinement is not "a mere unimportant regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner." The Court concluded that solitary confinement caused prisoners to go "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."
These detrimental effects extend to people who are in solitary confinement at no fault of their own. In adult prisons, juvenile and transgender inmates are often put in isolation for their own protection against older or bigoted prisoners. Sometimes, certain tattoos can get a person thrown in solitary confinement, because the body art is often associated with gang affiliation.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other reform advocates say it's time to acknowledge this research and stop the widespread use of solitary confinement. "We have to use data and science in our criminal justice system," Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project, said in February, "in the same way that we do in many other aspects of public policy."