Solitary Watch is a nonprofit national watchdog group that investigates, documents, and disseminates information on the widespread use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Our mission is to provide the public—as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates, people in prison and their families—with the first centralized source of unfolding news, original reporting, firsthand accounts, and background research on solitary confinement in the United States. Our hope is that such information will catalyze discussion, debate, and change on a vital domestic human rights issue. (Scroll down for a detailed description.)
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Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Co-Directors and Editors-in-Chief
Katie Rose Quandt, Staff Writer and Editor
Valerie Kiebala, Editorial and Project Associate
Marlies Talay, Kate Snider Project Coordinators, Lifelines to Solitary
Valerie Kiebala, Victoria Law, Joshua Manson, Contributing Writers
To apply for an internship as a Reporter/Researcher, click here.
Eighty 20 Group, Development Consultants
Lois Ahrens, Director, The Real Cost of Prisons Project
Stephen B. Bright, President and Senior Counsel Emeritus, Southern Center for Human Rights
David Bruck, Professor and Director, Virginia Captial Case Clearinghouse, Washington and Lee University School of Law
David C. Fathi, Director, ACLU National Prison Project
Bonnie Kerness, Coordinator, Prison Watch Project and STOPMAX Campaign, American Friends Service Committee
Robert King, activist and author; member of the Angola 3
Terry Kupers, MD, MSP, Institute Professor, The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology; clinical psychiatrist and expert in forensic mental health
Michael B. Mushlin, Professor, Pace University School of Law
Wilbert Rideau, journalist and author; former editor of the Angolite at the Louisiana State Pententiary
Laura Rovner, Associate Professor and Director, Civil Rights Clinic, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Meryl Schwartz, Deputy Director, The Innocence Project
Jeffrey St. Clair, Editor, Counterpunch
Liliana Segura, Senior Editor, The Intercept
Charles Sullivan, Executive Director, CURE
Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative
Affiliations are for identification purposes only.
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We also wish to acknowledge the formerly incarcerated people who have shared with us their unique knowledge and experience, and the currently incarcerated people who have written to inform us about conditions in solitary, sometimes at considerable risk of retaliation.
The use and abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons is one of the most pressing domestic human rights issues in America today—and also one of the most invisible. Today, at least 25,000 individuals are being held in long-term solitary in the nation’s “supermax” facilities. According to available data, the total number of men, women, and children living in solitary confinement in all state and federal prisons exceeds 80,000, with tens of thousands more in isolation in local jails, juvenile facilities, and immigration detention centers.
Far from being a last-resort measure reserved for the “worst of the worst,” solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in many prisons. This despite the fact that it has never been shown to serve any legitimate penological purpose, and may actually increase both prison violence and recidivism. Individuals can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, using drugs, ignoring orders, or using profanity. Thousands more are held in indefinite solitary confinement because they have been “validated” as gang members, based on highly questionable information. Others have ended up in solitary because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of “protection,” are gay or transgender, are Muslim, have unsavory political beliefs, or report rape or abuse by prison officials. In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarian men spent ten years in solitary because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.
For the people who endure it, life in solitary confinement means spending at least 23 hours a day in a cell that measures, on average, 6 x 9 feet, within supermax prisons or prison units that have made a science out of isolation. Their meals generally come through slots in the solid steel doors of their cells, as do any communications with prison staff. Some are permitted to exercise one hour a day, alone, in a fenced or walled “dog run.” Individuals in solitary confinement may be denied visits, telephone calls, television, reading materials, and art supplies. And they can remain in isolation for months, years, or decades. In Louisiana, Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 spent more than 43 years in solitary before his release in 2016.
Numerous studies have found evidence of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement. One recent federal court case called solitary confinement units “virtual incubators of psychoses–seeding illness in otherwise healthy prisoners and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities” (Ruiz v. Johnson 2001). As little as a week in solitary has been shown to affect EEG activity, while longer stretches produce psychopathologies at an alarmingly high rate. For those already suffering from or prone to mental illness–which in some states can make up nearly half of all people held in solitary–solitary confinement can cause irreparable psychological damage, as well as extreme mental anguish. About 50 percent of all prison suicides take place among the approximately 5 percent of incarcerated individuals held in solitary confinement.
Solitary Watch produces a daily blog, as well as longer investigative articles and fact sheets on various aspects of solitary confinement, and maintains a comprehensive library of resources on solitary confinement. A quarterly print edition is sent free of charge to prisoners and advocates. Solitary Watch also publishes “Voices from Solitary”—firsthand writing and video testimonies that give a human face to the facts and figures, and to a subset of people that is even more invisible than the prison population at large.
Recent activism against solitary confinement by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and several state-level campaigns, as well as grassroots groups and people in prison themselves, clearly show that this is an issue whose time has come. The goal of Solitary Watch is to support and inform these efforts by providing vital information and reporting, and to help place solitary confinement on the public agenda as an undeniable issue of basic human rights.