Solitary Confinement and the U.S. Prison System
Solitary confinement is typically used today as a punitive measure or to protect or separate inmates.
According to Solitary Watch, which aims to shed light on solitary confinement, inmates can be placed in solitary confinement not only for violent acts, but also for acts such as possessing contra- band, using drugs, ignoring orders or using profanity. Most persons in solitary confinement are placed in isolated cells for 23 hours per day. Many of these cells are illuminated only be artificial light and offer no exposure to natural daylight.
Currently, the United States incarcerates 2.3 million people (more people per capita than any other country in the world), with at least 80,000 of those in solitary confinement or some type of segregated housing. Many people in solitary confinement are held in “supermax” (short for “supermaximum security”) prisons that feature long-term isolation units designed specifically to hold individuals in conditions of sensory deprivation for extended periods. Every state is believed to hold some people in solitary confinement—as does the federal government—and the New York City Bar Association reports that eight states (including New York) keep between five and eight percent of their prison populations in isolation. Solitary confinement is the most expensive form of incarceration. Each prisoner in solitary costs taxpayers an estimated $75,000 a year, as compared to $25,000 for a prisoner not in solitary.
In A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, author Sharon Shalev explains that the design features of both supermax prisons and segregation cells contribute significantly to the daily experiences of prisoners. Though the design of isolation units differs between prison facilities, common features include locations in separate or remote parts of the prisons; the absence of windows or small or partially covered windows; poor air quality; stark appearance and dull colors; tamper-proof furniture bolted to the floor; and small and barren exercise cages. Many cells also feature feeding slots built into their doors, a measure taken to restrict movement outside the unit as much as possible. Some newer designs use remotely operated electronic doors to eliminate even the prisoner-guard interaction that occurs when guards turn the keys to walk segregated prisoners through their restricted daily routines.
These design features are carefully calculated and often create an overall feeling of claustrophobia and monotony. Research from organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch suggests that solitary confinement causes great psychological harm. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has said that “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be subject to an ab- solute prohibition.” In addition to exacerbating pre-existing mental health disorders, there is evidence that confinement also causes mental health disorders, including depression, psychosis, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch and uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear. Both Wallace and Woodfox have at times suffered from arthritis, hypertension, kidney failure, insomnia, anxiety, claustrophobia and depression as a result of the prolonged isolation.
In the last several years, grassroots activists and a handful of elected officials have begun to challenge the use and abuse of solitary confinement. Recent changes in solitary confinement include reducing the number of individuals kept in solitary and the lengths of their stays. Entire segregation units and facilities have also been closed in Illinois and Colorado. For a full listing of state measures, please visit this website.
In June 2012, the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement was held before the Senate Judiciary Subcom- mittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. During the hearing, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stated that solitary confinement is utilized as a deterrent to correct the behavior of individuals who pose the most risk of violence and disruption within the prison facility. Other prison administrators and psychologists testified to the practice’s damaging impact on mental health, prison violence and recidivism. Discussion also centered on the fact that rates of suicide and self-harm are significantly higher among people who experience isolation in solitary confinement.
It was announced during the hearing that the Federal Bu- reau of Prisons has agreed to work with the National Institute of Corrections on a comprehensive assessment of the use of solitary confinement. Senator Dick Durbin also announced that he intends to draft legislation to encourage reforms in the use of solitary confinement. According to a 2011 national report from the New York City Bar Association, “Courts in recent years have largely de- ferred to prison administrators with regard to the implementation and expansion of supermax confinement, stretching the limits of constitutionality so that supermax is largely immunized from judicial review.”
Caption: Jackie Sumell's model cell.
Credit: Mizue Aizeki.
»Alderdice, Jacob. “Recap of PLAP Solitary Confinement Panel." Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review, February 28, 2013.
» American Civil Liberties Union. “Stop Solitary — Mental Health Resources.”
» American Friends Service Committee. “Solitary Confinement Facts.”
» Amnesty International. “USA: 100 Years in Solitary: The ‘Angola 3’ and Their Fight for Justice.” June 7, 2011.
» Curtis, Abigail. “ACLU Touts Solitary Confinement Reforms in Maine, Urges Changes Nationwide." Bangor Daily News, March 11, 2013.
» Goode, Erica. “Senators Start a Review of Solitary Confinement.” The New York Times, June 19, 2012.
» London, Gabriel. “Three Decades in Solitary Confinement: America’s Greatest Living Prison Escape Artist.” Huffington Post, December 19, 2012
» National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “National Interfaith Campaign Welcomes Announcement of Assessment of Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons.”
» New York City Bar Association Committee on International Human Rights. “Supermax Confinement in U.S. Prisons.”
» Shalev, Sharon. A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement. London: Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics, 2008.
» Solitary Watch. “First Congressional Hearing on Solitary Confinement to Be Held June 19.”
» Wener, Richard E. The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails: Creating Humane Spaces in Secure Settings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.