Solitary Confinement in the United States: FAQ
Note: This FAQ is also available in Spanish, and in French!
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, stated: “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.” 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 purportedly are placed in isolation for their own safety. Whatever the terminology, the practice entails a deliberate effort to limit social contact for a determinate or indeterminate period of time.
The places where people are held in isolation also go by various names. 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, long-term isolation units are called Intensive Management Units (IMUs), while in Pennsylvania they are 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, alone or, in limited cases, with a cellmate.
Most prisons in the United States contain a solitary confinement unit, and most local jails include cells where people are held in solitary. In addition, some incarcerated people are held in isolation 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.
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. Currently available estimates suggest that at least 80,000 incarcerated men, women, and children are held in some form of isolated confinement on any given day.
A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that in 2012, nearly 20 percent of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons and 18 percent of people held in local jails had spent time in solitary confinement. 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 2012 population statistics for state and federal prisons and local jails, calculations show 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 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 for less than fifteen days (nor those in local jails or other types of detention), so they offer no point of accurate comparison with numbers collected by the BJS.
Earlier surveys 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 found 81,622 people held in restricted housing. The BJS’s 2000 census of the same facilities 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.
All of the numbers in these surveys and reports were self-reported by federal, 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 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 unpopular political beliefs, have been identified by others as gang members, or report rape or abuse by prison officials. Recent studies have shown that people of color are even more over-represented in solitary than they are in the prison population in general, and receive longer terms in solitary than white people for the same disciplinary infractions.
Individuals are sent to solitary 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 staff serve as prosecutors, judges, and juries, and there are no defense attorneys. Unsurprisingly, the accused 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 disciplinary segregation in federal prisons, for example, typically spend two days a week entirely in isolation, and 23 hours a day in their cells during the remaining five days, when they are allotted one hour for exercise. Exercise usually takes place alone in an exercise room or a fenced or walled “dog run.” Some individuals in solitary are escorted, usually 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 6×9 to 8×10 feet. Some have bars, but most have solid metal doors. Meals generally come through slots in the 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, radios, art supplies, and even reading materials in their cells.
People held at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California have been 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.”
Thomas Silverstein, who has been held in the federal system under a “no human contact” order for 35 years, described his environment in one prison: “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 more firsthand descriptions of life in solitary confinement, see Solitary Watch’s Voices from Solitary series.
How long do people spend in solitary confinement?
Terms in solitary range from a few days to several decades. Precise figures are scarce. In response to a 2016 survey, federal and state prisons reported that 11 percent of the people they held in restricted housing had been there for three years or more, and 5.4 percent had been there for six years or more. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some jurisdictions may have under-reported lengths of stays.
In California in 2011—prior to the series of mass hunger strikes and legal challenges that led to reforms—nearly all of the 1,100 men in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison had been in solitary for five years or more; about half for ten years or more; over 200 for 15 years or more; and 78 for 20 years or more. The group of men incarcerated in Louisiana known as the Angola 3 spent what are likely to be the longest spans of time in solitary—29, 42, and 44 years.
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 2013, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Patterson reported that people held in California’s Security Housing Units and Administrative Segregation Units had a 33 times greater chance of suicide than someone in the prison system’s general population. Studies in New York and Texas also found significantly higher suicide rates in solitary.
A 2012 class-action lawsuit filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and officials at ADX Florence supermax prison described how solitary psychologically affected individuals held there: “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 shortages of trained mental health staff, and existing staff often face restrictions to providing treatment. In some facilities, treatment for people in solitary consists of weekly or monthly mental health checks that are conducted through the feeding slots in cell doors. Although people with underlying mental illnesses are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide if placed in isolation, people who self-harm are sometimes punished for their actions with terms in solitary, and individuals perceived to be suicidal are frequently placed in completely bare “strip cells.”
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 also support a complete ban on the use of solitary confinement for people with mental illness.
What are the neurological and physical effects of solitary confinement?
At a 2016 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.” At another conference in 2014, Dr. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at University of Michigan, explained the brain “literally shrivels” under the extreme stress that people experience in solitary.
In a 2016 article, Dr. Brie Williams, Director of the Criminal Justice & Health Program at UC San Francisco, called the health effects of solitary “under-documented,” but pointed to some known risks: “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.”
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 placed in solitary confinement in both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. Although there are no reliable numbers on the use of solitary on children, available data suggests that hundreds and probably thousands of children are experiencing solitary each year—some for months or even years at a time.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) found that 45,567 children under 18 were held in juvenile detention facilities in October of 2016. In 2014, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers and 46 percent of training schools reported using solitary confinement as a disciplinary control method.
OJJDP data from 2014 and 2016 found more than 5,000 children held in adult prison and jails. Despite bans in a handful of states, most of these facilities continue to place children in solitary to punish behavior or isolate them from adults.
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 life after prison?
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. Yet impact of solitary confinement on recidivism and public safety has received little attention.
In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Texas Civil Rights Project reported that individuals released from solitary confinement cells were more likely to land back in prison than those released from 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. The 2006 report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons also found that solitary confinement was related to higher than average recidivism rates, particularly if people were released directly from solitary.
Stories told by survivors of solitary confinement and their families suggest that the lasting damage caused by solitary adds significantly to the already difficult challenges of re-entry.
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 keeping a person in solitary for one year costs taxpayers $75,000—approximately three times as much as housing a person at a regular maximum security prison.
In addition, solitary confinement has been associated with significantly higher construction costs per cell. For example, the now closed Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois cost $73 million to build in 1998 and was designed to hold 500 people, giving it a price tag of approximately $146,000 per bed.39
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 agreements say about solitary confinement?
In October 2011, Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, 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. His report, which singled out for criticism the routine use of supermax isolation in the United States, recommended an end to “prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement,” which he defined as anything beyond fifteen days, as well as a complete ban on any use of solitary on children or people with mental illness.
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 governing body of the UN Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, recommended that the practice of prison isolation be abolished. In 1992, the UN Human Rights Committeethat prolonged isolation could amount to a violation of international human rights law. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has also 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 the past decade, a movement has grown nationally and locally to abolish long-term solitary confinement. Through litigation, legislation, and grassroots pressure, advocates have begun to secure meaningful reforms in some prison systems, while also increasing public awareness of the harms caused by solitary and the existence of safe and humane alternatives.
In 2016, President Barack Obama denounced the overuse of solitary confinement and set out a plan to reduce the use of isolation in the federal prison system. However, many of the reforms had yet to be implemented when Donald Trump took office.
Progress has nonetheless continued at the state and local levels. In fall 2017, Colorado became the first state to announce that it had virtually eliminated long-term solitary confinement and implemented 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 innovative programs to greatly reduce its use of solitary confinement. Under pressure from lawsuits, California and New York have also significantly reduced their populations in solitary, and several additional states have worked with the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation project to reduce their use of solitary.
Where can I find out more about solitary confinement — and efforts to end it?
A searchable list of resources including reports, media articles, scholarly and law review articles, video, audio, court cases, policy documents, advocacy organizations, advocacy tools, and first-hand accounts of life in solitary can be found in the Solitary Confinement Resource Center at scrc.solitarywatch.org.
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:
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 December 2018. Please cite Solitary Watch and the original sources when quoting from this document.