Solitary Watch is a nonprofit watchdog organization that works to uncover the truth about solitary confinement and other harsh prison conditions in the United States by producing high-quality investigative journalism, accurate information, and authentic storytelling from both sides of prison walls. Solitary Watch’s mission is to spur public debate and policy change on an underreported humanitarian crisis by promoting awareness, creating accountability, and shifting narratives.
When Solitary Watch was founded in 2009, solitary confinement was the best-kept secret of the U.S. criminal justice system—a shadow world that was inhabited by upwards of 100,000 people, yet managed to remain out of sight of the American public, and resolutely off-limits to the press. We believed then, as we do now, that truth and transparency could serve as powerful antidotes to injustice. Over more than a decade, we have played a pivotal role in increasing public awareness, mainstream media attention, and evidence-based policymaking in response to what was once an invisible issue.
As criminal justice issues finally begin to receive some of the attention they deserve, in a nation that has just over 4 percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of its incarcerated people, our work will help determine what happens next. The unparalleled depth we bring to our work has made us a resource for other journalists, and for educators, scholars, lawyers, corrections officials, policy experts, advocates, and survivors of solitary around the world.
Currently, Solitary Watch is expanding the impact of our high-quality journalism by partnering with larger media outlets like The Nation, Atlantic, and American Prospect, which bring our stories to hundreds of thousands of readers. These stories include work by incarcerated journalists, as well as unforgettable firsthand accounts by people living in long-term solitary confinement, published in our Voices from Solitary series (and compiled into a book). And as we provide a unique forum for the experiences of people in solitary, we also bring them a spark of human contact through the Lifelines to Solitary and Photo Requests from Solitary projects.
About Solitary Confinement
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. According to available data, the total number of men, women, and children living in solitary confinement in all state and federal prisons exceeds 75,000, 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.
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 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.
For these reason, the United Nations has identified solitary as a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that often rises to the level of torture. In its 2015 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), the UN called upon member states to ban the use of solitary confinement beyond 14 days, and to eliminate it altogether for youth and pregnant women, as well as people with psychological, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, and other vulnerable individuals.
Research has also found that solitary confinement serves no legitimate purpose. It has never been shown to reduce prison violence, and in many circumstances may increase it. Solitary also increases recidivism and makes transitioning back to families and communities more difficult, especially for those released directly from isolation. Efforts in several U.S. jurisdictions to reduce or eliminate the use of long-term isolation, as well as models from Europe, show that humane, effective, and safe alternatives to solitary confinement do exist. So far, however, most reforms have been scattered and incremental.
Nonetheless, recent activism against solitary confinement by the Unlock the Box Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Stop Solitary for Kids, and many state-level campaigns, as well as grassroots groups and people in prison themselves, clearly show that this is an issue whose time has come.