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U.S. Prisons Held At Lest 61,000 Inmates in Solitary Confinement Last Year

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “Keeping prisoners in ‘near-total isolation’ from the living world [...] comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”

Erwin Wodicka - wodicka@aon.at/NewscomErwin Wodicka - wodicka@aon.at/NewscomThe number of U.S. prison inmates held in solitary confinement has dropped over the past five years, according to a new report, but an estimated 61,000 people last year still faced imprisonment in tiny cells for up to 22 hours a day in conditions that many former inmates, mental health professionals, and at least one sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice say amount to torture.

A longitudinal survey co-authored by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School found that, in the federal prison system and 43 state prison systems that provided data, 49,000 inmates in the fall of 2017 were confined to what is commonly known as "solitary." Extrapolating for the remaining states, the study estimates the total number to be 61,000.

The census asked jurisdictions to report, as of the fall of 2017, both their total prison populations and the number of prisoners held in restrictive housing. It includes federal and state inmates placed in any form of "restricted housing" for at least 22 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture concluded that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constituted cruel and inhumane punishment.

Nationally, the use of solitary confinement appears to be dropping. In 2016, there were at least 67,000 inmates in solitary, according to the survey, and in 2014, there were 80,000 to 100,000. Those numbers are all self-reported by jails and prisons—there are no mandatory nationwide reporting requirements on solitary—and are very likely an undercount.

The study's authors attribute the reduction to stricter state requirements for when inmates can be sent to solitary and how long they may be kept there. Colorado, for instance, has almost completely eliminated its use of solitary confinement. The Obama administration also banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and limited the amount of time adults can spend in solitary.

"But the picture is not uniform," the ASCA warned in a press release. "In more than two dozen states, the numbers of prisoners in restrictive housing decreased from 2016 to 2018, but in eleven states, the numbers went up."

Other concerns identified in the report include the continued use of solitary confinement for long periods, and its deployment against prisoners suffering from mental illness. The report found 4,000 people placed in solitary who were identified by their jurisdiction as seriously mentally ill. It also found 2,000 inmates who had been in solitary for six or more years.

"It's a snapshot of decline, but also a snapshot of the unfortunately enormity of mentally ill people in solitary confinement, which is one of the numbers that shocked me," says Amy Fettig, deputy director for the ACLU National Prison Project.

"It has now been decades since federal courts started ruling that placing people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment," Fettig continues. "The law has been clear for years that corrections is not supposed to do this, and yet we've got prison and jails across the country that are continuing to violate the law and continuing to place really vulnerable people at serious risk of harm."

Civil liberties advocates, prison reform organizations, and inmates themselves have put pressure on states to limit the use of solitary, citing the unsurprising evidence that locking human beings in tiny boxes alone for years at a time has negative psychological effects. For people already suffering from mental illness, the effects of solitary confinement, combined with the overall poor health services in U.S. prisons, can be catastrophic.

"Not only do they not get better, but they get worse," Fettig says. "When you go into these units—and I've been to many of them—you find people screaming uncontrollably, people losing their minds, people cutting off pieces of themselves, trying to kill themselves. These units very much resemble the worst idea we might have of bedlam."

In 2013, about 30,000 California inmates went on hunger strike to protest the state's draconian use of solitary. As a result of a lawsuit settlement in 2015, California's prisons no longer use indefinite solitary confinement.

Criticisms of solitary confinement also recently popped up in the nation's highest court. In a dissent Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the "clear constitutional problems" with solitary confinement have long been recognized and characterized long term isolation as being "perilously close to a penal tomb."

Sotomayor cited Charles Dickens' 1842 visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Afterwards, the novelist wrote that the "immense amount of torture and agony" inflicted by solitary confinement was largely hidden from public view, and he denounced the practice as "a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay."

"We are no longer so unaware," Sotomayor wrote. "Courts and corrections officials must accordingly remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners [....] in 'near-total isolation' from the living world in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb."

Photo Credit: Erwin Wodicka - wodicka@aon.at/Newscom

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  • DenverJ||

    I'd rather be in solitary than a rape cage.

  • Echo Chamber||

    I echo that

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Fortunately neither would possibly affect the behavior of an otherwise nonviolent criminal once he's back on the street.....right?

  • wootendw||

    No. A prisoner in solitary, who is in prison for violating someone's rights (the only thing a person should be imprisoned for), will behave better when he comes out than one who is socializing with other prisoners, whether or not the are abusing him.

  • Drake||

    Yeah, unless he goes nuts over it. Then you got a fuckin' psychotic on your hands. And besides, alot of people in solitary were locked up for non-violent crimes to begin with. If they weren't crazy before they'll be crazy now!

  • ||

    Prison would-you-rather is a very bad game.

    Anyway, there's a documentary called Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison that I'd recommend. Or the book Hell Is A Very Small Place. Either will make the notion of being in solitary a lot less appealing.

  • JeremyR||

    Better than being constantly raped.

  • Sevo||

    OK, just ordered the book.
    Not likely to be any controlled studies so anecdotes is the best we're gonna get. 240pages (soft-bound); got some books in front of it. Before the end of the year.
    I'm more comfortable with quiet contemplation than most, so it might be a hard sell.

  • MiloMinderbinder||

    Isn't the Nick Gillespie response to death penalty-types who worry about lifers killing others in prison that the dangerous ones can just be put in solitary?

  • PeteRR||

    Maybe I'm not up on the atmosphere in most prisons, but aren't there gangs and very violent individuals in the general population? I'd rather be in solitaire than be exposed to them.

  • 68W58||

    I worked in a close custody prison* for two years. Almost all of the inmates who were sent to seg during that time went for fighting. When you are dealing with a population that has already shown a propensity for violence you can either let them prey on one another or physically segregate those who do-that's why most of those who end up in "solitary" are there.

    *i don't think I met a single inmate who wasn't there for either a violent or sexual offense. Non-violent inmates are sent to lower custody institutions.

  • Homple||

    Hey, this is Libertarian Land, not the real world.

  • Qsl||

    Well, you could still isolate the more violent/unstable inmates from general population without going full SHU (you already have this for geriatrics).

    But that would require hiring more staff to oversee that unit, and as most prisons are understaffed already (must be that gravytrain of government bennies and a cushy retirement), it isn't happening either.

    So people are warehoused in the most cost effective way possible.

  • Homple||

    Imprisoned violent offenders might be a little harder to manage than geriatric patients.

    In the real world, anyway. Not sure about Libertarian Land.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Well, you can't run a gulag without a lot of people in solitary confinement.
    Otherwise the world might think this nation is humane.
    No one wants to be known as humane.
    What would our neighbors think?

  • FreedomIsBetterThanLiberty||

    Only 61,000?

    Maybe we'd have fewer people going to jail if we locked them up in an oublette.

    My brother loves jail. No responsibility and three squares a day. He can spend all day watching TV and playing games.

  • chipper me timbers||

    Sotomayor has been surprisingly good on criminal justice issues I have to admit.

  • wootendw||

    If people were only sent to prison for crimes that violate the rights of others, then a padded cell with no human contact - including books, radios, TV, cellmates, etc - would be the ideal punishment. Such conditions hurt real criminals more than they do an innocent person. Many criminals cannot 'take' solitary and won't tattle on fellow inmates who harm them because they would have to be isolated from the other prisoners.

    If solitary confinement seems harsh, then shorten the time 'served'. Instead of giving a year in a regular prison to a thief, give him three months of solitary confinement. It's better to have no company than the company of those who will get you in trouble. A prisoner without the company of other humans will likely value other humans more when he comes out. Maybe he'll even stop hurting them.

    No, I don't have any studies to prove this but it shouldn't be difficult to set one up. Just give solitary confinement to some prisoners and check to see how they behave when they get out.

  • wootendw||

    If people were only sent to prison for crimes that violate the rights of others, then a padded cell with no human contact - including books, radios, TV, cellmates, etc - would be the ideal punishment. Such conditions hurt real criminals more than they do an innocent person. Many criminals cannot 'take' solitary and won't tattle on fellow inmates who harm them because they would have to be isolated from the other prisoners.

    If solitary confinement seems harsh, then shorten the time 'served'. Instead of giving a year in a regular prison to a thief, give him three months of solitary confinement. It's better to have no company than the company of those who will get you in trouble. A prisoner without the company of other humans will likely value other humans more when he comes out. Maybe he'll even stop hurting them.

    No, I don't have any studies to prove this but it shouldn't be difficult to set one up. Just give solitary confinement to some prisoners and check to see how they behave when they get out.

  • wootendw||

    If people were only sent to prison for crimes that violate the rights of others, then a padded cell with no human contact - including books, radios, TV, cellmates, etc - would be the ideal punishment. Such conditions hurt real criminals more than they do an innocent person. Many criminals cannot 'take' solitary and won't tattle on fellow inmates who harm them because they would have to be isolated from the other prisoners.

    If solitary confinement seems harsh, then shorten the time 'served'. Instead of giving a year in a regular prison to a thief, give him three months of solitary confinement. It's better to have no company than the company of those who will get you in trouble. A prisoner without the company of other humans will likely value other humans more when he comes out. Maybe he'll even stop hurting them.

    No, I don't have any studies to prove this but it shouldn't be difficult to set one up. Just give solitary confinement to a few prisoners and check to see how they behave when they get out.

  • Sevo||

    "No, I don't have any studies to prove this but it shouldn't be difficult to set one up. Just give solitary confinement to a few prisoners and check to see how they behave when they get out."

    Uh, I doubt any jurisdiction would allow such 'studies'. They may be cons, but they are still people.

  • wootendw||

    Some might volunteer to get shorter sentence.

  • wootendw||

    Some inmates might volunteer in exchange for a shorter sentence.

  • wootendw||

    Reason needs to provide an edit/delete feature for comments so that when the server's response is slow, and the commenter re-submits, he can delete the redundant comments.

  • Rob Misek||

    A bullet costs $.03.

    It costs $168,000.00 per year to keep these wastes of skin housed and fed in a New York City prison.

  • Conchfritters||

    Where do you buy your ammo? Need me some of that 3 cent bullet sale you're talking about.

  • Conchfritters||

    penal tomb

    Look at Justice Sonia up there, naming death metal bands.

  • LongDongSilver||

    "At lest" try not to inlucde a typo in the banner headline, bruh

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Let's stop jailing people for dealing in the sex trade and selling and ingesting things that offend the easily offended.

    Once we've reduced the prison population by 70% we can start doing real reforms like addressing solitary confinement.

  • JonFrum||

    So you don't like low-IQ, extremely violent men in solitary? OK - we'll send them to live on your street.


    I'd take solitary over dealing with those scum any day - and I'd do the time standing on my head. The thugs complain because they want to fuck or kill each other, poor dears.

  • gphx||

    Most libertarians just want to be left alone in general. Being stuck in a cell for 20 years with a needy, externally validated, nonstop talker would pure hell. Unfortunately the NAP would prevent just smashing his face in for the quick ticket to solitude.

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