Rethinking Solitary Confinement in American Prisons

Behind Bars: Rethinking Solitary Confinement in American Prisons

Emily Steiner*

Solitary confinement is a widely used and highly controversial practice in American prisons that has been the go-to method for handling discipline and security since the mid-1980s. Inmates held in solitary confinement spend approximately twenty-three hours a day in tiny, windowless cells, receiving their food on trays passed through a slot in the cell door. According to an estimate by the Vera Institute of Justice, as many as 80,000 people are currently held in isolation cells across the United States. See Natasha Haverty, Amid Backlash Against Isolating Inmates, New Mexico Moves Toward Change, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Aug. 24, 2015, 4:47 AM),  Solitary confinement is so commonly widespread that many states do not even track how many people are held in isolation. Id.  A growing number of activists, however, are convinced that the policy is a violation of basic human rights.  These activists, largely comprised of lawmakers and former prison inmates, are speaking out about the damaging effects of solitary confinement and demanding prison reform.

Although isolating prisoners is commonplace in today’s U.S. prisons, from a historical perspective, solitary confinement has had critics since the practice began in the early 1800s.  The original experiments in isolating prison inmates occurred at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the basic rationale was that sensory deprivation through long periods of isolation would help reform inmates and make them more virtuous. See Brian Mann, How Solitary Confinement Became Hardwired in U.S. Prisons, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Aug. 23, 2015, 7:58 AM),  Critics who observed the practice at Eastern State, however, were quick to oppose solitary confinement, calling it “ghastly” and a form of “torture.” Id.  Nevertheless, the practice gained traction in American prisons.  Beginning in the early 1900s, long-term isolation was used on the most dangerous prisoners, but only on rare occasions and for no longer than a two-week period. Id. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that solitary confinement became an established component of American prisons.

During the drug war of the 1980s and 1990s, inmates flooded state and federal correctional institutions.  As a result of the drastic prison population increase, there was a correlative spike in riots, gang violence, and assaults on prison guards. Id. Prison officials seeking a solution to this problem began building new isolation quarters to maintain order within existing prisons.  Officials also began designing an entirely new kind of prison, known as “supermax” correctional facilities, which are separate prisons that function like Eastern State Penitentiary did in the 1800s, locking inmates in cells for 23 hours a day with minimal interactions with guards or other prisoners. Id. Currently, there are approximately 20 supermax prisons in the U.S., holding around 20,000 inmates.  At one of California’s supermax prisons, Pelican Bay, half of the prison population has been there for more than ten years, and some of those inmates have been confined in solitary for twenty, or even thirty years. Id.

The practice of solitary confinement has become such a standard disciplinary tool in the U.S. that even nonviolent inmates are often placed in isolation for months or even years at a time. Additionally, it is common for U.S. prisons to keep teenagers, pregnant mothers, and mentally-ill inmates in long-term isolation. Id. With so many prison inmates in solitary confinement, the resulting effects on mental health are overwhelmingly clear: “[d]eprivation of meaningful social contact . . . create[s] pain and suffering.” Id. Studies show that solitary confinement can lead to higher rates of suicide and mental illness, even in prisons that permit radio or television for inmates in isolation cells. Id. Mental health experts and researchers conclude that long periods in solitary confinement emotionally damage teens and adults.  Former prisoners have spoken out this emotional damage, detailing their suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, and hallucinations induced as a result of their experiences in solitary confinement. See Solitary Confinement: Punishment or Cruelty?, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Mar. 10, 2013, 5:00 PM),

When prisoners are moved to solitary confinement, they are no longer able to obtain the same services offered to other prisoners, such as education classes or job training. Joseph Shapiro, Coming Home Straight from Solitary Damages Inmates and Their Families, Nat’l Pub. Radio (June 12, 2015, 4:56 AM),  Furthermore, because inmates in solitary confinement generally serve all or most of their sentence, when they are released they do not get parole services to aid in re-entering society. Id. When those prisoners come home, they frequently struggle to get along with people, including the family members that they depend upon the most.  In solitary confinement, the ability to interact with other human beings erodes, and in turn those effects are imposed on family members.  With broken family ties, former inmates are more likely to become recidivists. Id.

Clinical findings on the detrimental effects of solitary confinement have led prison administrators to look for ways to scale back on the widespread use of long-term isolation in American prisons. In July of 2015, New York’s Rikers Island, the second-largest prison in the U.S., banned the use of solitary confinement for inmates under 21 years old. See Brian Mann, New York Begins to Question Solitary Confinement as Default, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Aug. 24, 2015, 4:35 PM),  Other states are making strides in prison reform too. In New Mexico, many low-risk inmates were recently moved out of solitary confinement, and inmates who are still housed in isolation can earn their way out in nine months with good behavior. See Haverty, supra.  Although nine months is still more time in isolation than most reform advocates and mental health experts support, New Mexico’s steps toward change appear to be effective.  Two years ago, 10 percent of the state’s prison population was in solitary confinement, and in 2015, it dropped to 6 percent. Id. According to state officials in New Mexico, there has been no significant increase in violence since the new policies were implemented. Id.

In spite of these changes, not everyone is in favor of eliminating or restricting the use of solitary confinement. Mike Powers, a corrections officer and head of the state prison guard union in New York, says “officers use solitary confinement strategically every day to maintain order and safety, especially in New York’s often violent maximum security prisons,” and claims that “the threat of isolation is an important deterrent” in prison. See Mann, New York Begins to Question Solitary Confinement as Default, supra.  Another corrections officer, Norman Seabrook, agrees and advocates that solitary confinement is a “necessary tool” for prison guards. See To End Solitary Confinement, Rikers Steps Out of the Box, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Feb. 8, 2015, 6:57 PM),  Reform advocates respond by arguing that isolation is used much too often.  They point to the fact that many of the 4,500 inmates held in New York’s isolation cells last year were “teenagers, pregnant women and inmates who committed minor infractions.” See Mann, New York Begins to Question Solitary Confinement as Default, supra.  Additionally, “five out of six offenses that lead people into solitary are for nonviolent ticket infractions, like excessive bearding or having too many stamps.” Id. Activists worry that this opposition from prison guards will block significant changes in policy-making.  Prison guards are given wide discretion to use the ability to put an inmate in solitary confinement, and it has become their default mechanism.

In total, about a dozen states are seeking to reform the manner in which solitary confinement is used in prisons. With tens of thousands of inmates held in isolation across the United States, efforts to change prison policy are being closely watched. Id. If new procedures are going to work, prison guards will need more support and training along with more effective alternatives to isolation, “including drug counseling and conflict resolution programs.” See id. Solving the issues around solitary confinement is not about stopping corrections officers from making decisions.  Instead, it is about facilitating decision-making with a more critical eye, as opposed to merely putting a person in isolation for an indefinite period of time.

Emily Steiner is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law where she is a staff editor for Law Review, as well as Law Scholar for Professor Kimberly Brown’s Civil Procedure I class.  In the summer of 2015, she interned for Judge Timothy Meredith at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and she will be working as a 2016 Summer Associate for DLA Piper, LLP.

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