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The case against solitary confinement

On any given day, some 61,000 people are in solitary confinement in US prisons. It’s time to abolish the practice.

A prisoner looking out of his solitary confinement cell.
A prisoner looks out of his solitary confinement cell on the administrative segregation wing of the Ferguson Unit, 1997, outside of Lovelady, Texas. 
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old. In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators. They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American. The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years. Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days. Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms, and a host of other outrages. But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.

Well over a century ago in the US, the practice fell out of favor, partly because of its capacity for psychological harm. Yet starting in the 1980s, its use in prisons and jails exploded again.

Over the past decade, there has been a movement to (again) stop the widespread use of solitary. There have been major steps forward in some states. But there’s considerable need for more progress — and wider acknowledgment that this is something that we are all accountable for. As Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, put it in a recent talk, “We torture people here in America, tens of thousands of them every day … it’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors.”

A brief history of solitary confinement

In the 1700s, religious groups, including the Quakers, thought that isolating people in their cells with a Bible would lead to repentance and rehabilitation. The Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia expanded to include solitary cells in 1790, and other prisons and jails adopted the approach over the subsequent years.

A few decades later, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania opened in 1829, the first prison built entirely to keep people in solitary confinement. When Charles Dickens visited the facility about a decade later and met with people who were held in isolation, he wrote, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

In 1890, the Supreme Court heard a case in which a person had been held in isolation for a month while awaiting execution. The Court stated that this was “an additional punishment of the most important and painful character, and is therefore forbidden by this provision of the constitution of the United States,” adding that experience with solitary confinement over the previous decades had shown the devastating results on people.

By the early 1900s, the practice had largely been abandoned, in part because it was seen as unethical and ineffective, and in part because it was much costlier.

But that was not to be the last word on solitary confinement. Nearly a century later, in the 1980s and ’90s, the US prison system again took up the practice in full force.

This shift is commonly traced to October 22, 1983, at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, when four guards were injured and two were killed by people housed in the prison. Administrators at the facility responded with a long-term “lockdown,” in which everyone at Marion was held in their cells for 23 hours per day. The model used at Marion soon spread to other facilities across the country.

The federal and state prison systems began to construct “supermax” prisons, in which a unit of the facility (or the entire facility) is designed to hold hundreds of people in solitary confinement. Pelican Bay State Prison in California was the first newly constructed supermax prison to open, in 1989. Within 15 years, federal and state supermax prisons had opened in 44 states.

Why solitary came back

Why did correctional institutions take up solitary confinement when it had been deemed ineffective and unacceptably cruel 100 years prior?

Researchers often point to a couple of main causes. First, there was a rise in “tough on crime” policies in the ’80s and ’90s. These policies led to many more people —disproportionately people of color — being locked up for long periods of time. Given subsequent overcrowding, corrections administrations were eager to find ways that, they argued, would increase safety and security for staff and incarcerated people.

In the same period, there was a shift in how incarceration was viewed by corrections staff and policymakers. The opinion that “nothing works” to rehabilitate people became popular, and prison was seen much more as a way to lock away dangerous people. (In an unfortunate turn of events, a researcher whose 1974 systematic review helped popularize the view that “nothing works” later found problems with his analysis and recanted, but his retraction was largely ignored.)

Poor data collection and secrecy surrounding solitary confinement over the years also may have played a role in allowing the practice to proliferate. That said, we do have some data. A Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of the 2011-’12 National Inmate Survey (in both prisons and jails) estimated that about 18 to 20 percent of incarcerated people spent some time in solitary confinement in the course of a year. A National Institute of Justice report, using the number of people incarcerated in 2013, calculated that about half a million people spent some time in solitary confinement at some point in the year, or 90,000 on a given day.

The most recent nationwide estimate of 61,000 people in solitary on a given day in 2017 comes from a survey of state prisons and a few large urban jails, conducted by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School. As Solitary Watch, a nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about the practice, and the researchers who conducted the survey point out, this estimate is likely to be considerably lower than the total number, given that it omits anyone held in solitary for less than 15 days, as well as those held in other facilities such as local jails, juvenile detention, and immigration detention centers.

Beyond lack of data transparency, many facilities — especially supermax prisons — are also largely closed off to observers. Some prisons forbid anyone who doesn’t personally know a person housed there to visit. That restriction even included Méndez, the former UN special rapporteur on torture, who told Solitary Watch that he requested permission to visit prisons in the US for years without success.

The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as the ADX or “Supermax,” in Florence, Colorado.
Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

What is it like in solitary confinement?

Researcher Sharon Shalev describes typical solitary confinement conditions in her 2009 book Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement:

  • Cells are about 7 or 8 feet by 10 feet in size (slightly bigger than the average bathroom or elevator)
  • People are held in their cells for 22.5 to 24 hours per day; when let out, it is into a small, solitary outdoor cage with no recreational equipment
  • No group activities or congregating with others
  • Very few activities or programs
  • Limited visitors, and then only through a thick glass barrier with no physical contact

Many firsthand accounts from people who have experienced solitary attest to these conditions.

Justice Rountree, who spent five years in solitary and is now an advocate with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, said in a recent panel that compared to regular prison, solitary “feels like losing your freedom.”

Rountree and many others describe being kept awake by constant shouting and banging from others in cells. In many cells, there is no window, and sometimes even from the outdoor cage where they are allowed to go (by themselves) for an hour to pace back and forth, they can’t see the sky. Shaka Senghor, who spent seven and a half years in solitary, described the smell as “defecation, unwashed armpits … [mingled] with the pepper spray officers use to extract prisoners from their cells.” Some have even described how they begin to hallucinate.

Far from isolating only people who have been violent, it’s very common for corrections to put people in solitary for trivial reasons. A 2015 report from the Vera Institute of Justice describes how “disruptive behavior — such as talking back, being out of place, failure to obey an order, failing to report to work or school, or refusing to change housing units or cells — frequently lands incarcerated people in disciplinary segregation.”

Facilities vary as to what extent they allow people books and other materials while in solitary. Even if reading materials are allowed, they are often censored. In the absence of social connection, many people describe feeling unable to connect normally afterward. Sarah Shourd, who was held in solitary for more than a year in Iran, wrote, “... I couldn’t look into another person’s eyes without physical discomfort. ... A touch on the shoulder made me flinch and tense up.”

For some people, particularly teenagers and those with mental illness, this disconnection can be lasting. Kalief Browder was 16 when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in New York City. His family couldn’t afford the bail, and he spent three years at a Rikers Island jail waiting for court hearings, two of them in solitary — where he tried to kill himself a number of times. After his charged were dropped and he went home, he isolated himself, often staying in his bedroom and pacing as he had done in solitary confinement.

At the age of 22, he died by suicide.

What does research show about the harms of solitary confinement?

Research over the past few decades has documented the effects of solitary confinement. In congressional testimony in 2012, psychologist Craig Haney summarized: “Most of the research has reached remarkably similar conclusions about the adverse psychological consequences of solitary confinement.”

Haney gives the example of his 2003 study of 100 randomly selected people held at Pelican Bay, the supermax prison in California. Haney found that virtually all of his interviewees reported heightened anxiety, irrational anger and irritability, confused thought processes, and being extremely sensitive to external stimuli. Some 70 percent felt themselves to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, about 40 percent experienced hallucinations, and just under a third reported suicidal thoughts.

According to Haney, these symptoms closely matched other studies of people held in solitary confinement for a period of months to years, and were much more severe than in general populations of prisons and jails. Haney and other psychologists including Stuart Grassian have long argued that these symptoms develop and increase while people are confined in solitary, rather than merely being preexisting symptoms.

The desperation that people feel in solitary confinement can lead to psychological breakdown, self-harm, and suicide. A 2014 study of New York City jails found that while only about 7 percent of people spent time in solitary confinement, they accounted for nearly half of all acts of potentially fatal self-harm. Studies have shown that a quarter of suicides (or even more) behind bars occur in solitary confinement.

The risks of extreme harm to people in solitary are greater for vulnerable groups, such as those with mental illness and disabilities. In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association released a statement saying that with rare exceptions, people with serious mental illness should not be placed in solitary.

Yet prisons and jails very often do just that. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of data in 2011-’12, nearly 30 percent of those held in solitary in prisons reported severe psychological distress, with a further 20 to 23 percent reporting mood and anxiety disorders.

There’s also widespread agreement among researchers that the risks to young people in solitary confinement are particularly severe. Depriving young people of sensory and social contact has a heightened risk of serious and lasting effects. The federal system and many states are restricting the duration of solitary confinement or banning solitary confinement for youth, but in recent years, the practice has still been common in prisons and juvenile detention facilities in some states.

Not all researchers hold the same view about the harms of solitary confinement. Some are more skeptical about past research showing serious harms, and they question how much we can infer from studies that often lack a comparable control group. In recent years, some researchers have also pointed to a 2011 study in Colorado that purported to show evidence that those in solitary for months to a year fared no worse psychologically than similar people in the general population of the prison.

They also point to two systematic reviews that combine the results of only studies that directly compare those in solitary confinement to those in a control group. Both reviews claim that after pooling those studies, solitary has only a modest negative impact on mental health. In response, Haney and others have pointed to a number of serious methodological problems with the systematic reviews and with the Colorado study.

Does solitary confinement do what it purports to do?

Let’s sidestep this debate and ask a different question: What’s the evidence that solitary confinement achieves positive results?

Corrections departments have long argued that solitary is effective at maintaining safety and security in prisons. But the evidence does not support this view.

A 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice stated, “There is little evidence that administrative segregation has had effects on overall levels of violence within individual institutions or across correctional systems.”

The few studies on the impacts of increased solitary confinement do not show a reduction in violence among people held in the facilities. For example, a 2006 study of three states that opened supermax prisons showed no subsequent statewide reduction in violence among those housed at the prisons.

Furthermore, there’s little evidence that solitary meaningfully improves safety for staff in prisons and jails. To be sure, correctional officers have an extremely difficult job, and it’s important that they are able to go to work without being in danger. Many who work in corrections believe that solitary confinement plays a role in keeping them safe. As Gary Mohr, director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, wrote, “[O]ur staff, those who work in the trenches of our prisons, firmly believe the use of restrictive housing as a default disciplinary sanction is tied directly to their safety.”

However, as in the case with violence in prisons generally, there is no strong evidence that solitary is keeping officers safer. The 2016 National Institute of Justice report found that few studies have focused on the effect of solitary confinement on subsequent misconduct (including violence against staff). A large study in Ohio found no evidence of any effect of solitary on subsequent violent misbehavior. In states like Colorado and North Dakota, which have dramatically reduced the number of people in solitary confinement over the past several years, corrections directors report that there has not been an increase in violent incidents against corrections staff. And while the 2006 study of three states that opened supermax prisons did show a reduction in violent incidents against staff in one of the three states (Illinois), it found no effect in Minnesota and an increase in such incidents in Arizona.

There is a legitimate question of how to protect vulnerable people, such as people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others, in prisons. Protecting such populations has often been given as a reason for using solitary.

But there are other options. The Vera Institute, which has worked with corrections departments across a number of states on reducing solitary, reports on effective ways to keep people safe other than solitary confinement. Vera, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association, recommends keeping people in a safe, separate area of the facility with others, and with full access to programming and services. As far as putting youth in solitary confinement within adult facilities to keep them safe, advocates argue that they shouldn’t be in adult prisons to begin with.

Finally, advocates often point out that the vast majority of people housed in solitary will be returning to the community, where they are expected to function. Solitary makes that transition even more difficult.

Abandoning solitary confinement. Again.

Brian Nelson, left, who spent 23 years in solitary confinement, speaks about his time there on June 24, 2015, during a press conference regarding the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners against the Illinois Department of Corrections for its overuse and misuse of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons in Chicago.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Over the past decade, there’s been a surge of attention and reform on solitary confinement. Advocacy groups have been pushing for change, including the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, and the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

The Vera Institute has worked with a number of jurisdictions on reforming their practices. Among the group’s recommendations are that solitary confinement should:

  • Never be used on vulnerable groups such as those under 18, pregnant women, and those with mental illness or mental/physical disabilities
  • Rarely be used as discipline, and then only for violent offenses
  • Used with the least restrictive conditions possible, providing access to medical and mental health care outside of the cell, visitors and phone calls, and daily hours of programming with other people
  • Never be used directly prior to releasing someone back into the community.

In 2016, President Obama reformed the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities, including banning it for those under 18 and limits on its use for adults. But since the federal system holds about a tenth of the people incarcerated in the US, these reforms only affect a small number of the total held in solitary confinement.

Some reforms have been driven by actions from within prisons and litigation. For example, thousands of people held in Pelican Bay and other prisons in California participated in a series of hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, protesting their treatment, including the application of indefinite solitary confinement.

In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal class-action lawsuit (Ashker v. Governor of California), resulting in a 2015 settlement that required California’s corrections department to release many of those who had been in long-term solitary and to reform their rules.

Other lawsuits in recent years have succeeded in banning and restricting solitary, largely focused on vulnerable groups such as youth, people with mental health issues, and pregnant women. However, as in California, it’s been clear that corrections sometimes try to find ways around new rules.

There’s also been a wave of legislation at the state level. So far, state bills have largely secured protections for people in vulnerable groups, or have mandated (at the very least) that prisons report data on their use of solitary confinement. However, two states — New York and New Jersey — are considering bills that offer sweeping reforms for everyone who is incarcerated.

Finally, internal change is also taking place within some corrections departments. In 2016, the American Correctional Association — a nonprofit that provides guidelines to corrections departments and facilities across the US — issued new standards on restrictive housing (its term for solitary confinement). These included banning its use for more than 30 days for pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and young people under 18. Many jurisdictions reported that they were changing their policies as a result of the new guidelines.

A few corrections departments went much further to improve their policies. In 2017, Colorado put into place some of the most progressive policies in the country, limiting solitary confinement to the UN standard of no more than 15 days. North Dakota is another state that has significantly reformed its use of solitary confinement.

When thinking through the movement against solitary confinement, we should see it within the broader context of our criminal justice system. Hugely important changes — such as reforms to bail, parole/probation, and sentencing — will likely go a long way to reducing people in solitary confinement, since there will be fewer people in prisons and jails to begin with. Amy Fettig, the deputy director for the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Director of the ACLU’s Stop Solitary campaign, told me, “We have to get people out of prison, and we have to get people out of solitary confinement. [Both are] part of a systematic effort ... we’re confronting a system that is so profoundly broken in so many ways that you can’t fix one problem without fixing the others.”

The Supreme Court has stated that what counts as “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment must “draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Have our “standards of decency” evolved enough for us to stop this practice?

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