Examining the Costs of Solitary Confinement

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.” 

While some courts have ruled that the degree of psychological trauma inflicted on the average prisoner in solitary confinement is neither cruel nor unusual, others have disapproved of subjecting prisoners with pre-existing mental health conditions or those with a high risk of suffering mental illness to solitary confinement.  “For those inmates,” solitary confinement “is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe,” Chief Judge Thelton E. Henderson wrote in a sweeping 1995 ruling, holding that prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Henderson formally closed that case after sixteen years in March 2011, following a pledge by prison officials to keep reforms in place without court supervision.  The ruling, however,  did not eliminate the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, and a three-week hunger strike by prisoners sparked national media coverage.

Obfuscation by prison officials, however, often hides the true cost of solitary. A recent investigation by Anita Kumar of the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia found officials “reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.”

Still, Red Onion prison officials admitted that nearly 173 of the 505 prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from some degree of mental illness. “Whether the illness was induced by isolation is not known; what is beyond dispute is that isolation exacerbates the problem,” The Washington Post opined.  When these prisoners are released, they will also face a higher probability of recidivism.

If the current system of mass incarceration is “stripping away the fundamental rights of a large portion of the population – mostly people of color – at a huge cost to taxpayers,” the widespread use of solitary confinement is producing a subset of mentally ill prisoners at an additional cost.