Solitary Confinement

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that more “African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.


  • January 27, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    The ACLU’s Inimai Chettiar recently explained in an ACSblog post how downsizing our system of mass incarceration would be good for fairness, safety, and our wallets. Another benefit of shrinking our prison population is that it could also diminish our reliance on solitary confinement, which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has called “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Some corrections experts also make the case that the use of solitary confinement is costly, and not effective. 

    Currently, more than 25,000 prisoners are held in isolation in American supermax prisons across 44 states.  Countless thousands more are kept in restrictive segregation units at a cost of two to three times more than conventional prison units.

    According to some experts, an “exploding prison population” is to blame for the increased use of solitary confinement over the past three decades.  “Unfortunately, too many inmates today fear for their lives and their safety,” the Cato Institute’s Roger Pilon explains. He concedes that the psychological well-being of prisoners in solitary confinement is a concern, but that “it must be balanced with a concern for the safety of other inmates.”

    Others assert there is little empirical evidence that the use of solitary confinement improves prison safety. The ACLU has found that the “levels of violence in American prisons may have more to do with the way prisoners are treated and how prisons have been managed.” In fact, placing prisoners into solitary confinement may actually increase prison violence.  As one prison psychologist told Human Rights Watch, “if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.” 

  • November 30, 2009

    The use of solitary confinement is on the rise, according to a recent editorial in The Washington Post. In addition to increasing prisoners' risks of mental health issues, solitary confinement costs roughly twice as much as standard incarceration, says the Post.

    Assessing those subjected to solitary confinement, The Post states: 

    They are not, by and large, the "worst of the worst" -- mass murderers or psychopaths in the mold of Hannibal Lecter. They are, instead, men and women serving time for all manner of offenses, some of them relatively minor. But they have been deemed disciplinary problems -- or potential disciplinary problems -- by prison staffers. And so they find themselves locked up in what is commonly known as solitary confinement, sometimes for months, sometimes for years and sometimes with devastating consequences.  

    The constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement is currently being litigated by a group of prisoners known as "the Angola 3." They spent 23 hours per day confined to their cells in Louisiana's Angola prison for up to 37 years, and are challenging the conditions of their incarceration under the Eighth Amendment

    [Image via Derek Purdy.]