Solitary Confinement in the United States: The Facts

Spanish version: Confinamiento Solitario en los Estados Unidos: Los Hechos
French version: L’isolement Carcéral aux États-Unis: Les Faits

What is solitary confinement?

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

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. The most recent and comprehensive count, presented in a May 2023 report published by Solitary Watch and the Unlock the Box campaign, found that more than 122,000 incarcerated men, women, and children were held daily in some form of isolated confinement in United States prisons and jails in 2019.

According to the Solitary Watch/Unlock the Box report, nearly 81,000 people—6.3 percent of the total United States prison population—were locked in solitary confinement in state or federal prison on a given day in 2019. An additional 42,000 people—5.5 percent of the national jail population—were locked in solitary in federal and local jails on a given day in that same year. 

These figures, which are compiled from Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data and supplemented with data from the Vera Institute of Justice as well as state and local agencies, include only people who were held in solitary for 22 or more hours a day. Furthermore, they do not account for people who were held in solitary confinement in juvenile, military, or immigration detention facilities. As such, the total number of people in solitary confinement on any given day is undoubtedly even higher than what the Solitary Watch/Unlock the Box statistics indicate. 

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 for fifteen days or more. By 2017, the number was around 61,000, and by 2021, it was estimated to be between 41,000 and 48,000. 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.

For more detail, see the report Calculating Torture: Analysis of Federal, State, and Local Data Showing More Than 122,000 People in Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons and Jails from Solitary Watch and Unlock the Box.

Who gets put in solitary?

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.

Racism also plays a role in who lands in solitary confinement. As described in Solitary Watch’s fact sheet on racism and solitary confinement, people of color are even more over-represented in solitary than they are in the general prison population, and receive longer terms in solitary than white people for the same disciplinary infractions. A recent study of Pennsylvania prisons found that Black men in the study cohort were 8.2 more likely to be held in solitary than white men, and that 11 percent of all Black men in Pennsylvania born between 1986 and 1989 had experienced solitary by age 32. Disparities in the use of solitary have also been found to exist for Latinos and Native Americans. 

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?

For those who endure it, life in solitary confinement means living in a cell for up to 24 hours a day. 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. They are often denied the opportunity to work or attend prison programming, and are 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.”

William Blake, who spent 34 years in solitary confinement in New York before he was transferred to the general prison population in 2021, described his environment in solitary as follows: “Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012… I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU 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?

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?

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?

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?

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.”

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

Are children held in solitary?

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 2016. In 2014, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers and 46 percent of training schools reported using solitary confinement as a disciplinary control method.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report based on 2014 data found more than 5,000 children held in adult prisons 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, who had been 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 eighteen 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.”

For more on children in solitary confinement, see Solitary Watch’s fact sheet on the topic.

What effect does solitary 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 returned to their communities. Yet the impact of solitary confinement on recidivism and public safety has received little attention.

In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the 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. Solitary confinement has also been shown to lead to shortened life spans: a 2020 study of people released from North Carolina prisons found that people with one placement in solitary were 17 percent more likely to die prematurely of causes including opioid overdose, homicide, and suicide. The risk of premature death was even higher among people who had been placed in solitary multiple times, at 38 percent. 

For more information on the long-term effects of solitary confinement, see Solitary Watch’s fact sheet on the collateral consequences of solitary. 

Is solitary needed to control prison violence?

Proponents of solitary confinement often argue that solitary confinement is needed to reduce violence and promote safety in prisons and jails. However, research over the years has shown that isolation is largely ineffective at reducing prison violence. 

In fact, high rates of solitary confinement have been linked to increased violence in facilities. Between 2008 and 2015, Texas saw a 104 percent increase in assaults committed by incarcerated people; corrections staff attributed this increase directly to the frequent use of solitary. Routine or long-term stays in solitary can lead to increased difficulty in managing emotions, which can exacerbate violent behavior. 

Moreover, many jurisdictions that have limited their use of solitary confinement have actually experienced a decrease in prison violence. After Washington, Colorado, and Mississippi enacted reforms to reduce the number of people sent to solitary and limit the length of time people were allowed to spend in solitary, assaults on staff decreased by 40 to 50 percent. Assaults on other incarcerated people showed an even more significant reduction, decreasing by 50 to 70 percent. 

Because of their isolation and relative lack of visibility, people in solitary are even more vulnerable to abuse by staff compared to the general prison population. As such, reducing solitary confinement may also have the effect of decreasing violence perpetrated by staff. 

For more discussion of the relationship between solitary confinement and prison safety, see Solitary Watch’s fact sheet on the topic. 

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.

As part of the effort to advance legislation limiting solitary, advocates in New York and California have done their own studies of costs and come to the conclusion that reducing solitary would save money. An analysis of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act found that, if fully implemented, the law would save New York State and local counties $132 million annually, or $1.3 billion over ten years. The projected savings arise not only from closing solitary confinement units, but also from the effect that restrictions on solitary would have on reducing prison violence, recidivism, and medical costs. 

A more recent analysis of California’s Mandela Act on Solitary Confinement, which was reintroduced during the 2023 legislative session after being vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom the previous year, similarly found that California could save upwards of $61.1 million per year by implementing the reforms.  

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 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, see Solitary Watch’s fact sheet on solitary and the law.

How do other countries use solitary?

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.

Norway is one country that uses solitary confinement far less frequently than the United States. The Norwegian Penal Code states that incarcerated people should be allowed to socialize with other incarcerated people to the maximum extent possible, a principle which has helped Norway minimize its use of solitary. Norwegian prisons also operate under the principle that individuals should be moved to less restrictive housing over time. 

Several states, including Washington and North Dakota, have taken inspiration from Norway for reducing their own use of solitary confinement. Between 2016 and 2020, after implementing reforms modeled after the Norwegian prison system, North Dakota saw its use of solitary decrease by 74 percent.

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 Committee stipulated that 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 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 many prison systems, while also increasing public awareness of the harms caused by solitary and the existence of safe and humane alternatives.

Much of this progress has taken place 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. 

More recently, a number of states have enacted legislation to end prolonged solitary confinement. In 2019, New Jersey passed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which limits solitary confinement to 20 consecutive days and bans it entirely for vulnerable groups of people. In 2021 and 2022, respectively, New York passed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act and Connecticut passed the PROTECT Act to ban solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days. Similar legislation that would end the use of solitary beyond 10 or 15 days has been introduced in at least 17 other states, including California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington State. 

Over two dozen states have passed bills ending solitary for young people or other vulnerable populations, such as pregnant people, people with disabilities, people with mental health needs, LGBTQ+ people, and the elderly. Several states have also created independent oversight bodies to monitor the implementation of solitary confinement reforms as well as other improvements to prison conditions. 

During his 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden committed to “ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person.” However, he has yet to follow through on that promise, and the number of people held in isolation in federal prisons and jails has in fact increased during his term. The Federal Anti-Solitary Task Force has released a blueprint for ending solitary confinement at the federal level, which includes provisions for reporting requirements and oversight mechanisms to ensure that restrictions on solitary are effectively implemented. 

For more information on recent legislative developments, see Unlock the Box’s report Banning Torture: Legislative Trends and Policy Solutions for Restricting and Ending Solitary Confinement Throughout the United States

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

Solitary Watch is your first stop for breaking news, investigative journalism, weekly media roundups, firsthand stories, and resources on solitary confinement:

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:


FAQ by Valerie Kiebala, Sal Rodriguez, and Mirilla Zhu. © 2011, 2018, 2023. Last updated June 2023. Please cite Solitary Watch and the original sources when quoting from this document.

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 generate public debate and inform policy change on an underreported humanitarian crisis by promoting awareness, creating accountability, and shifting narratives.

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