What is solitary confinement?

Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods of time ranging from days to decades.

As Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at UC Santa Cruz, testified in support of Ashker v Brown: “‘Solitary confinement’ and ‘isolated confinement’ are terms of art in correctional practice and scholarship. For perhaps obvious reasons, total and absolute solitary confinement—literally complete isolation from any form of human contact—does not exist in prison and never has. Instead, the term is generally used to refer to conditions of extreme (but not total) isolation from others.”

Few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement,” instead referring to prison “segregation” or placement in “restrictive housing.” As this may be done for punitive, disciplinary or purportedly protective reasons, the names may vary. Whatever the terminology, the practice entails a deliberate effort to limit social contact for a determinate or indeterminate period of time.

In California, long-term solitary confinement units are referred to as Security Housing Units (SHUs); in New York, the same acronym stands for Special Housing Units. In Oregon, the long-term isolation units are called Intensive Management Units (IMUs), while in Pennsylvania they are called Restricted Housing Units (RHUs). In the federal system, one type of solitary confinement takes place in Special Management Units (SMUs), and another in Communications Management Units (CMUs). What all share are conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation within a small, confined space.

Some people are held in solitary confinement in special “supermax” prisons, such as California’s Pelican Bay, Virginia’s Red Onion, and the federal government’s ADX in Florence, Colorado. At least 44 states and the federal system now have supermax prisons, which are generally composed solely of solitary confinement cells. Other incarcerated people live in SHUs, RHUs, and IMUs within ordinary prisons, and in solitary cells inside local jails. In some units and facilities, people are locked down 22 or more hours a day in small cells with a cellmate.

Some systems make a distinction between various reasons for solitary confinement. “Disciplinary segregation” or “punitive segregation” is time spent in solitary as punishment for violating prison rules, and usually lasts from several weeks to several years. “Administrative segregation” relies on a system of classification rather than actual behavior, and often constitutes a permanent or indefinite placement, extending from years to decades. “Involuntary protective custody” is especially common among children held in adult prisons, LGBTQ individuals, and other vulnerable populations who live in indefinite isolation, supposedly for their own safety.

How many people are held in solitary confinement?

The number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States has been notoriously difficult to determine. The lack of reliable information is due to state-by-state variances and shortcomings in data gathering and ideas of what constitutes solitary confinement. With that said, currently available estimates suggest that at least 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated persons are held in some form of isolated confinement on any given day.

In October 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report entitled Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011-12. According to the report, nearly twenty percent of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons and eighteen percent of people held in local jails had spent time in restrictive housing. On an average day, 4.4 percent of those in prisons and 2.7 percent of those in jails were in restrictive housing, including disciplinary and administrative segregation. Based on the 2012 BJS report documenting the number of people held in state and federal correctional facilities as well as the population statistics from the 2012 BJS Annual Jail Survey, Solitary Watch calculated out the percentages, finding that on an average day in 2012, 89,199 people were held in solitary—69,097 in state and federal prisons and 20,102 in local jails. About 448,000 people had been held in solitary confinement at some point in the preceding twelve months. These figures, unlike many others, do include local jails. However, they do not include any juvenile, immigration, or military detention facilities.

More recent figures collected and published by Yale University’s Liman Center, in partnership with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, suggest some decline in the number of people held in solitary, reflecting widespread advocacy efforts and the implementation of reforms in some states. A Liman/ASCA survey conducted in late 2015 found approximately 68,000 individuals in restricted housing. By late 2017, the number was 61,000. However, these figures do not include people held in solitary confinement for less than fifteen days (nor those in local jails or other types of detention), so they cannot be accurately compared with the numbers collected by the BJS.

Earlier censuses conducted by the BJS show the trends in the use of solitary confinement over time. A census of federal and state prisons (not jails) conducted in 2005 (and cited by the Vera Institute of Justice and many others), found 81,622 people held in “restricted housing.” The 2000 census of federal and state prisons (cited by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons) found 80,870 people in restricted housing, including 36,499 in administrative segregation, 33,586 in disciplinary segregation, and 10,765 in protective custody. The 2000 figures represented a 40 percent increase over 1995, when 57,591 people were held in restricted housing. (During the same period of time, the overall prison population grew by 28 percent.) Further, a widely accepted 2005 study found that some 25,000 of the people in restricted housing were being held in long-term solitary in supermax prisons around the country.

It is worth noting that all of the numbers reflected in these surveys and reports were self-reported by state and local departments of corrections, with no process for independent verification.

Who gets put in solitary confinement?

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 and jails. Today, incarcerated men and women can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity. 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.

Some individuals are placed in administrative segregation indefinitely because prison officials decide that they threaten the “safety and security” of the facility. They receive periodic reviews that are usually pro forma. Likewise, individuals receive terms in disciplinary segregation based on charges that are levied, adjudicated, and enforced by prison officials with little or no outside oversight. Many prison systems have a hearing process, but these are seldom more than perfunctory. Prison officials serve as prosecutors, judges, and juries, and incarcerated people are rarely permitted representation by defense attorneys. Unsurprisingly, in most prison systems, they are nearly always found guilty.

What are conditions like in solitary confinement?

For those who endure it, life in solitary confinement means living 23 to 24 hours a day in a cell. People held in solitary in many jurisdictions typically spend two days a week entirely in isolation, and 23 hours a day in their cell the remaining five days, when they are allotted one hour for exercise, which usually takes place alone in an exercise room or a fenced or walled “dog run.” Some people are escorted, in shackles, to the shower, while others have showers within their cells. They may or may not be allowed to leave their cells for visits or to make telephone calls.

Solitary confinement cells generally measure from 6 x 9 to 8 x 10 feet, smaller than an average parking space. Some have bars, but more often they have solid metal doors. Meals generally come through slots in these doors, as do any communications with prison staff. Within these cells, people live lives of enforced idleness, denied the opportunity to work or attend prison programming, and sometimes banned from having televisions, radios, art supplies, and even reading materials in their cells.

The isolation unit at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois has been described as consisting of “gray walls, a solid steel door, no window, no clock, and a light that was kept on 24 hours a day.”  Similarly, people held at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California were described as living in a “small, cement prison cell. Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet…You can’t move more than eight feet in one direction.”

Dr. Craig Haney, in testimony submitted to the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, described the isolation of the men in these cells: “They have no contact with the normal social world either. Indeed, the only regular physical contact they have with another human being is the incidental brushing up against the guards who must first place them in handcuffs and chains before they escort them out of their cells and housing units. They visit loved ones through thick glass and over phones, and are thus denied the opportunity to ever touch another human being with affection. This has gone on unabated, for years and years, for some of these men for several decades now.”

In the federal system, Thomas Silverstein (described as America’s “most isolated man”) has been held under a “no human contact” order for 35 years. In his own words, “I was not only isolated, but also disoriented…This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world.”

For people’s own descriptions of life in solitary confinement, see Solitary Watch’s Voices from Solitary project.

How long do people spend in solitary confinement?

Terms in solitary range from a few days to several decades. Precise figures are scarce. A 2016 report by the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale University and the Association of State Correctional Administrators found that eleven percent of people held in restricted housing remain there for three years or more and 5.4 percent remain for six years or more. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some jurisdictions may have under-reported lengths of stays in solitary.

William Blake, whose essay on life in solitary has reached millions of readers, has now been held in solitary in New York for 31 years with no prospect of release. The group of men incarcerated in Louisiana known as the Angola 3 spent perhaps the nation’s longest terms in solitary confinement. Robert King spent 29 years in solitary before being released. Herman Wallace spent 42 years before being released from prison in 2013, dying three days later from liver cancer. Albert Woodfox was released in 2016 after spending nearly 44 years in solitary confinement.

What are the psychological effects of solitary confinement?

Following extensive interviews with people held in the SHU at Pelican Bay in 1993, Dr. Stuart Grassian found that solitary confinement induces a psychiatric disorder, which he called “SHU Syndrome,” characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Psychological assessments of men in solitary at Pelican Bay indicated high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.

In testimony before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee in August 2011, Dr. Craig Haney discussed the effects of solitary confinement: “In short, prisoners in these units complain of chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression. Rates of suicide in the California lockup units are by far the highest in any prison housing units anywhere in the country. Many people held in the SHUs become deeply and unshakably paranoid, and are profoundly anxious around and afraid of people (on those rare occasions when they are allowed contact with them). Some begin to lose their grasp on their sanity and badly decompensate.”

In New YorkCalifornia and Texas, it has been found that suicide rates are significantly higher among people held in solitary confinement than in general population. In 2013, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Patterson reported people held in California’s Security Housing Units and Administrative Segregation Units have a 33 times greater chance of suicide than someone in the prison system’s general population.

A 2012 class-action lawsuit filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and officials at ADX Florence in Colorado described how solitary psychologically affects people: “Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to the reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them.”

One plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jack Powers, had no history of mental illness before he came to prison but developed severe psychological problems and began to engage in self-harm after years of solitary confinement at ADX. Powers was driven to cut off his earlobes, slice his genitals, cut his Achilles’ tendon, and drill a hole in his skull. “The self-injury,” Powers said, “was pretty much my overall response to being locked down inside the ADX control unit for more than a decade.”

For more on the psychological effects of solitary confinement, see Solitary Watch’s fact sheet on the topic.

Are people with mental illnesses put in solitary confinement?

Over the past 30 years, prisons and jails have become the nation’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers. A 2014 Treatment Advocacy Center report found that over 350,000 individuals with severe mental illnesses were being held in US prisons and jails in 2012, while 35,000 severely mentally ill individuals were patients in state psychiatric hospitals. This means that the number of people with mental illness held in prisons and jails was ten times greater than the number being provided care in state hospitals.

Solitary confinement cells, in particular, are now used to warehouse thousands of individuals with mental illness. In a 2003 report, Human Rights Watch estimated, based on available state data, that one-third to one-half of those held in isolation had some form of mental illness.

Most prisons and jails have a serious shortage of trained mental health staff, and the mental health professionals working in these facilities often complain of restrictions to providing adequate treatment. In some facilities, treatment for people in solitary sometimes consists of weekly or monthly mental health checks that are conducted through the feeding slot in cell doors. Although people with underlying mental illnesses are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide, people who self-harm are sometimes punished for their actions and individuals perceived to be suicidal are frequently placed in completely bare “strip cells.”

Recognizing that solitary confinement worsens existing psychiatric conditions and causes severe suffering in people with mental illness, several court decisions and pieces of legislation have been crafted to protect mentally ill individuals. In New York, for example, the SHU Exclusion Law, which took effect in July 2011, mandates that people with serious mental illnesses be diverted from solitary confinement units and instead be placed in residential mental health treatment units. The law has loopholes for “exceptional circumstances,” however, and critics charge that the diagnostic process is excluding many people with mental illness from the law’s protections.

The American Psychiatric Association, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other professional organizations have taken positions opposing the use of solitary for individuals with serious mental illness. The United Nations and many advocacy organizations support a complete ban on the use of solitary confinement for people with underlying mental illness.

What are the neurological and physical effects of solitary confinement?

At a 2016 University of Pittsburgh Law School conference on solitary confinement, Dr. Michael J. Zigmond, professor of neurology at University of Pittsburgh, said, “Isolation devastates the brain. There is no question about that. Without air, we will live minutes. Without water, we will live days. Without nutrition, we will live weeks. Without physical activity, our lives are decreased by years. Social interaction is part of these basic elements of life.”

Zigmond found this out in a 2016 study he conducted on mice and rats, which demonstrated neurological degeneration in the rodents held in an isolated environment. Dr. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at University of Michigan, explained the striking neurological damage of solitary in terms of stress, at a conference two years earlier. Stress, Akil says, fundamentally, and often permanently, alters the neurons in the hippocampus. The brain “literally shrivels” under the extreme stress that people experience in solitary.

Akil also pointed out the overlap between the neurological, psychological, and physiological effects of solitary. “To me, the separation of the mental and physical is highly artificial, because there are definitely physical consequences of these experiences,” said Akil.

In a 2016 article, Director of the Criminal Justice & Health Program at University of California, San Francisco Dr. Brie Williams explained some of the physical effects of isolation: “Such a prolonged lack of sunlight can cause Vitamin D deficiency, putting older adults at risk for fractures and falls, a leading cause of hospitalization and death. Moreover, exercise – even the little we get walking from sofa to kitchen to bedroom – is crucial for maintaining health among all ages. It is also an important preventative measure, and sometimes treatment, for many conditions – hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, among others. These conditions are disproportionately common, at younger ages, among prisoners.” Still, Williams said, “The physical health effects of [solitary] are under-documented.”

In June of 2018, University of California Santa Cruz held a conference of global experts, where Dr. Craig Haney talked about the growing attention being placed on the physical damage caused by solitary. “Being isolated tends to make people feel depressed, which isn’t terribly shocking. But being lonely or socially excluded also places people at significantly greater risk of becoming physically ill and of dying at a younger age. It’s less intuitive, but it parallels the psychologically adverse effects.”

Are children held in solitary confinement?

Children are often placed into solitary in two settings: juvenile detention facilities and the adult criminal justice system. Data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) found that 45,567 children were held in juvenile detention facilities in October of 2016, while adult state prisons held just under 1,000 youth and, on an average day in 2014, adult jails held 4,200 youth.

47 percent of juvenile detention centers and 46 percent of training schools reported using solitary confinement as a disciplinary control method in 2014. Despite a few states’ ban, most adult prisons and jails continue to use solitary on children to punish behavior or isolate them from adults. Without the availability of reliable numbers, it is still clear that thousands of children are experiencing solitary each year – some for months or even years at a time.

In Wisconsin, a 2017 lawsuit revealed that fifteen to twenty percent of the children held at the juvenile correctional facilities Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls routinely faced solitary – often for periods of 30 to 60 days. In one case, Sydni Briggs was awarded $18.9 million after she suffered permanent, severe brain damage from a suicide attempt at age sixteen following time in solitary. The conditions were so extreme for the children that in 2017, a chief U.S. district judge said, “Ted Kaczynski [known as the Unabomber, currently held in the federal supermax prison in Colorado] has less restrictive confinement than the youth at Lincoln Hills.” Under pressure from advocates, the state agreed to close the facilities by 2021.

Children are frequently held in solitary in adult jails before they have even been convicted of a crime, simply because there is nowhere else to put them. A sixteen-year-old in Alaska spent 500 days in solitary while awaiting trial, and another in Tennessee spent close to two years. Kalief Browder, wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack, ended his life in 2015 after exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder from being held in solitary as a teenager for two of his three years at Rikers Island in New York, while awaiting trial.

In Florida, Ian Manuel spent fifteen years in solitary confinement in adult prison for a crime he committed at age thirteen. He often cut himself, and he tried to kill himself at least five times. At Montana State Prison, Raistlen Katka was placed in solitary confinement at age seventeen and received no mental health treatment despite self-mutilation and suicide attempts. Katka was known to have “twice attempted to kill himself by biting through his wrist to puncture a vein” before he was removed from solitary.

The experience of isolation is particularly damaging to young people, since they are still in the stages of adolescent development. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, data shows that children are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than a juvenile detention facility and nineteen times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population. In the juvenile justice system, approximately half of all suicides take place when a young person is held in “room confinement.”

What effect does solitary confinement have on recidivism?

Despite the tradition of harsh sentencing in the United States, most incarcerated people will eventually be released from prison and be returned to their communities. But as discussed in a 2014 paper by Shira Gordon in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, while awareness of and concern with the negative impacts of solitary confinement has grown, “the question of whether solitary confinement affects public safety and recidivism has received less attention.”

In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Houston branch of the Texas Civil Rights Project reported individuals released from solitary confinement cells are more likely to be arrested than those in the general population. Of people released from Texas prisons in 2006, 48.8 percent were rearrested within three years. For those released from isolation units, 60.84 percent were rearrested in the same time frame.

A 2009 study examining data from the Florida Department of Corrections reported “evidence that supermax incarceration may increase violent recidivism” but found “no evidence of an effect of the duration of supermax incarceration or the recency of such incarceration to the time of release into society.”

Another study, conducted in Washington State and published in 2007, found higher felony recidivism rates among people released directly from supermax units compared to controls in the general population.

The 2006 report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that solitary confinement was related to higher than average recidivism rates, particularly if people are released back into the community directly from solitary and that recidivism could be reduced if structured, evidence-based programming and educational opportunities are made available to those in solitary.

One man, Nikko Jenkins, murdered four people within weeks of being directly released from two and a half years in solitary at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska, in 2013. At the trial, Jenkins said voices of the ancient Egyptian god Ahpophis commanded him to kill them and blamed the department of corrections for releasing him after denying his 38 requests for mental health treatment, six requests for psychiatric hospitalization, and three requests for civil commitment, during his time in solitary.

How much does solitary confinement cost?

Nationally, it has been estimated that the average cost of a year in solitary costs taxpayers $75,000. In 2013, the Government Accountability Office estimated it costs $78,000 a year to house someone at the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, nearly three times as much as the cost of housing an inmate at a maximum security facility.

In addition, solitary confinement has been associated with significantly higher construction costs per cell. For example, Wisconsin’s Boscobel supermax facility was built to house 500 people at a cost of $47.5 million (in 1990 dollars), or over $95,000 per bed. Even more significantly, the now closed Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois cost $73 million to build in 1998 and was designed to hold 500 people, giving a construction price tag of approximately $146,000 per bed.

Solitary Watch has released a fact sheet on this issue with more specific data on various states.

How have the courts ruled on solitary confinement?

In 1890, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller condemned the practice: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”–In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168 (1890)

In 1995, federal judge Thelton Henderson wrote that solitary confinement “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” and that for those who have been diagnosed mentally ill, “placing them in [solitary confinement] is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air.” — Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1265 (N.D. Cal. 1995).

This is a sentiment echoed by federal judge William Wayne Justice who in 2001 who wrote that: “[Solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of psychoses–seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.” –Ruiz v Johnson, 154 F.Supp.2d 975 (S.D.Tex.2001).

While courts have consistently indicated that incarcerated people diagnosed with a psychiatric condition must be treated differently, the same cannot be said of those sent to isolation in general. For instance, while the Gomez ruling provided protections for individuals with mental health conditions, it was also determined that for the average person solitary confinement did not rise to the level of Eighth Amendment prohibitions of “cruel and unusual punishment.” In Sandin v. Conner, it was ruled that short term segregation “did not present a dramatic departure from the basic conditions of [the person’s] sentence.”

For a discussion of the courts’ interpretations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in relation to solitary confinement, check out our fact sheet on the issue.

How do other countries use solitary confinement?

Among Western industrialized nations, the United States is the only country to make extensive use of long-term solitary confinement. In most European countries, the number of people held in segregation beyond a few days or weeks is in the hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands. Extended periods of isolation are seen by most as a human rights violation; even those few incarcerated individuals who are separated from others for safety reasons are provided with activities and contact to reduce their isolation and sensory deprivation.

The United Kingdom, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in Western Europe with approximately 92,500 people in prison, likely has no more than 50 people in prolonged solitary confinement at any given time. In June 2015, it was reported that in all UK maximum security prisons only 24 individuals had been segregated for more than six months. Others are typically placed in isolation for no longer than a few days. A robust system of national oversight demands that when someone is held in solitary for 72 hours or more, the prison must notify the Ministry of Justice as well as a local, independent monitoring board.

Outside the United States, widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement takes place primarily in countries with high numbers of political prisoners, including Iran and Israel.

What do international bodies say about solitary confinement?

In October 2011, the UN’s chief torture investigator called on UN member nations to ban nearly all uses of solitary confinement in prisons, warning that it causes serious mental and physical harm and often amounts to torture. Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, presented a written report on solitary confinement to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, which singled out for criticism the routine use of supermax isolation in the United States. Méndez stated: “I am of the view that juveniles, given their physical and mental immaturity, should never be subjected to solitary confinement. Equally, in order not to exacerbate a previously existing mental condition, individuals with mental disabilities should be provided with proper medical or psychiatric care and under no circumstances should they ever be subjected to solitary confinement. My recommendations are, first, to see if we can have a complete ban on prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement. And I more or less arbitrarily defined that as anything beyond fifteen days of solitary confinement, meaning someone being confined to a cell for at least 22 hours a day.”

In December 2015, the United Nations codified most of Méndez’s recommendations when it passed the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, generally known as “the Mandela Rules.”

Earlier, the Committee Against Torture, official governing body of the UN Convention Against Torture that the United States ratified in 1994, recommended that the practice of prison isolation be abolished. In 1992, the UN Human Rights Committee suggested that prolonged isolation could amount to a violation of international human rights law. Similarly, the UN committee on the Rights of the Child has urged an end to the use of solitary confinement against minors.

What reforms to solitary confinement have taken place in U.S. prisons and jails?

In fall 2017, Colorado became the first US state to announce that it had virtually eliminated long-term solitary confinement and instituted the standards laid out by the Mandela Rules. Colorado has replaced prolonged solitary with alternatives that include step-down programs and mental health units. North Dakota also instituted more humane alternatives to solitary after its director of corrections visited prisons in Norway.

Washington State has used some innovative programs to greatly reduce its use of solitary confinement. Several other states, including California and New York, have also significantly reduced their populations in solitary, often under pressure from lawsuits. Additional states have worked with the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation project to reduce, though not eliminate, the use of solitary.

In 2016, President Barack Obama denounced the overuse of solitary confinement and ordered a set of reforms designed to reduce the use of isolation in the federal prison system. Many of the reforms had yet to be implemented when Donald Trump took office about a year later.

In the last eight years, a movement has grown nationally and locally to abolish long-term solitary confinement. Advocates around the country continue to pressure jurisdictions to implement reforms and humane alternatives to solitary confinement.

Where can I find out more about solitary confinement — and efforts to end it?

Be sure to sign up to receive updates from Solitary Watch. The following national advocacy groups are also working to end long-term solitary confinement:

American Civil Liberties Union, National Prison Project, Stop Solitary Campaign: www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/solitary-confinement/

National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Ending Torture in U.S. Prisons: www.nrcat.org/torture-in-us-prisons

Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Stop Solitary for Kids Campaign: www.stopsolitaryforkids.org/

These groups and others are also part of a national coalition that supports state and local efforts to end solitary. Visit Unlock the Box: unlocktheboxcampaign.org.


FAQ by Valerie Kiebala and Sal Rodriguez. © 2018, last updated October 2018. Please cite Solitary Watch and the original sources when quoting from this document.

10 thoughts on “FAQ

  1. Very good faq sheet. I have a few comments which I think are important. Prisons are not “inpatient psychiatric centers” and should not be characterized this way. I know of several cases of people going to jail who have psych disabilities who have been doing fairly well in the community on a voluntary medication regimen and have been taken off their medications and denied access too them by their jailors. Prisoners are not the same as patients and prisoners are not “inpatients”. I would not talk about prisons in this way. It also shouldn’t be implied that only unmedicated prisoners are segregated. My experience has been that many people who are on medication are also put into segregation just because they have a serious mental illness or may have suicidal ideation. It also should not be implied that either medicated or unmedicated prisoners NEED segregation based only on diagnosis or necessarily need to be put in a special mental health treatment unit. Many can go into the general population and can function and may prefer it. Thank you for your work on this resource.

  2. I don’t mind paying my taxes to feed them, or house them, and I don’t want them to escape the torture of living with the contemplation their crimes though death. I wouldn’t give them more than a ten by ten room with no windows, doors, books, electronics, mail, art supplies, any human contact, mail or phone priveleges, or any other stimulus. Feed them vitamin enriched gruel and water through a slot in the wall, and let them rot until their god has mercy on their souls. If he does. But we shouldn’t have any. And remember, The people that wrote the constitution, and disagreed with cruel and unusual punishment, believed that hanging, stoning, firing squads, drowning, and housing people in prisons under horrendous conditions where they had to fend for themselves as far as food and medical care where concerned, so as not to die, where Just punishments for the crimes that they committed. I think that they would be just fine with the treatment of these isolated prisoners until they went insane, as if they weren’t already. Get a life, pick a cause and defend someone who deserves defending. Lets worry about this minutia when it’s the last injustice left in this miserable world.

  3. Some time in your life, you did something where someone felt you didn’t deserve a chance in hell and people still gave it to you.

  4. What a strange brutal hate on something you never really thought about. Each society has to deal with its margin. The criteria of social punishment change with the history of each society as change the demands towards what “being human” should mean. Historically the US built themselves on some kind of “revenge” ethics. But this should be over now. Applying the law is not exerting any revenge. What is the very specificity of Democracy should be to consider this same margin as part of itself.The evil is not outside but inside its structures and values. And the way it treats this part is how it considers itself and its relationship with what is ” human” as well.

  5. The funny thing is that sometimes your time in solitary can turn out the blessing, or a life-changing experience.

    Valuch’s book University of Solitude made me research more about this subject. Based on his experience and perception of reality, solitary confinement was actually a good thing. But one must be freed at the end, of course.

    I pray for everyone confined to discover the truths of life in the depths of their own self, and, once walking away free men, live a new better life with a new perception of reality around us.

  6. My son fought with his girlfriend. She was physically unharmed. He HAS BEEN IN MAX SECURITY FOR 5 YEARS. No, I am not leaving out pertinent and/or relevant details. Get help. These people are broken. Not monsters and someone broke them! They deserve to be treated humanely. If you treated an animal like this you would go to jail. We have an obligation to our fellow human beings to not allow them to be tortured. If it happened to you, you would want someone to care.

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