Mass Incarceration, Solitary Confinement and Overdue Need for Reform

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.


Beyond flouting federal law on torture, proving potentially devastating to inmates, solitary confinement is incredibly costly. As Joseph Jerome writes, the tens of thousands of prisoners held in solitary confinement in prisons nationwide are done so “at a cost of two to three times more than convention prison units.” (Will also notes the enormous cost, writing “on average, three times as much per inmate as in normal prisons.”)

Lawmakers interested in reforming penal policy might want to take a look at New York City. The city, as The New York Times reported in late January, has not been following the trend of imprisoning more people. “As the American prison population has doubled in the past two decades, the city has been a remarkable exception to the trend: the number of its residents in prison has shrunk. Its incarceration rate, once high by national standards, has plunged well below the United States …. And crime in the city has fallen by more than 75 percent, almost twice as much as in the rest of the country.” The article notes the government shifted money from building more prisons to placing more police on the streets. The shift has resulted in significantly fewer inmates, and saving the state about $1.5 billion a year, according to Franklin E. Zimring, author of The City That Became Safe.

The effort to decrease prison population in the city, however, is not without controversy. As The Times points out, the use of “stop-and-frisk” in New York City is being challenged by civil liberties groups as constitutionally suspect and the police department’s own numbers show that minorities are disproportionately affected by the policy.