The Word: Why Counting Everyone in Solitary Confinement Matters

The Word from Solitary Watch for May 2023

by | June 7, 2023

Two weeks ago today, Solitary Watch and the Unlock the Box campaign published Calculating Torture, a report showing that at least 122,840 people are in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Ours is the first report to provide a snapshot of all individuals in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more a day in all U.S. state and federal prisons and local jails, based on the best available data. 

Previous counts of people in solitary have been significantly lower largely because they have been less complete, counting only people in prisons (not jails), and in some cases, only those held in solitary for 15 days or more. Clearly, such calculations provided only a partial picture—but in the absence of any better or more complete data, they were widely cited by journalists, scholars, and policymakers.

Given this, we realize that it could be months or years before our more accurate number becomes the new standard (and even longer until we have a figure that includes the unknown number of people in solitary in juvenile or immigration facilities). The fact that governments on all levels permit this form of torture to take place without even requiring that its victims be counted is just one of the travesties inherent in the way solitary confinement is practiced in this country.

At the same time, we’re plagued by the uncertainty that the new number alone will make much of a difference. Will it matter to know that over 122,000 people are being tortured in solitary confinement, rather than 80,000, or 50,000? Will the pure shock value provided by the enormity of the number—which, as our colleagues at Unlock the Box have pointed out, is more than the total population of Berkeley or Ann Arbor—jolt more people into action?

We have to believe that accuracy matters—that the truth matters. And even more, we believe that every person in solitary confinement is a suffering human soul who, at the very least, deserves to be counted. 

One of those people was Kalief Browder, who endured more than two years of solitary confinement on Rikers Island while he was still a child and legally innocent, and who died by suicide after being (in his own words) “mentally scarred” by his experience. Because he was held in solitary in a local jail rather than a state or federal prison, Kalief would not have been counted.

Another was Benjamin Van Zandt, who had endured time in solitary confinement as well as abuse and threats from guards, and who died by suicide at the age of 21 on the first night after he was sentenced to another 30 days in solitary. Because he had not been in solitary for 15 days or more, Ben might not have been counted.

Their stories are reminders of what our number means in human terms. It means that more than 122,000 people—one of every 17 incarcerated Americans—are being held in conditions that constitute torture. It means that as I write—and as you read—each of these individuals is suffering alone, being put at serious risk of psychological, neurological, and physical damage, as well as self-harm and suicide. 

Making sure that all the Kaliefs and Bens and others are counted is just one way to acknowledge and bear witness to their experience. Telling their individual human stories—and encouraging people in solitary to tell their own stories—is another way. 

But the most important thing we can do for all of them is to fight to reduce the number of people in solitary confinement—and to keep on fighting until solitary is a thing of the past, and there is no one left to count.

Read earlier dispatches:

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If you see the value in this piece, please help Solitary Watch continue our groundbreaking work to expose the torture of solitary confinement in U.S. jails and prisons and support the work of incarcerated writers—both on our own website and in high-profile progressive publications. Make a tax-deductible donation—large or small—to Solitary Watch today.

Jean Casella

Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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