The number of inmates held in solitary confinement in the United States has been notoriously difficult to determine. Most states do not publish the relevant data, and many do not even collect it. Attempts to come up with a figure have been denounced as imperfect, based on state-by-state variances and shortcomings in data-gathering and in conceptions of what constitutes solitary confinement.
A widely accepted 2005 study found that some 25,000 prisoners were being held in supermax prisons around the country. And in the last year, that figure seems to dominate in the mainstream press. The Washington Post, in a recent front-page article on solitary confinement in Virginia, noted that “44 states…use solitary confinement,” and cited an “estimated 25,000 people in solitary in the nation’s state and federal prisons.” The problem here is that the 25,000 figure (as well as the 44) applies to supermax prisons only. It does not claim to account for the tens of thousands of additional prisoners held in the Secure Housing Units, Restricted Housing Units, Special Management Units and other isolation cells in prisons and jails around the country. Yet it is being cited as a total for the nation’s overall use of solitary confinement.
An alternative figure does, however, exist–and while it may not be perfect, we believe it more accurately reflects the total number of prisoners held in isolated confinement on any given day. A census of state and federal prisoners is conducted every five years by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The most recent census for which data are available is 2005. It found 81,622 inmates were being held in “restricted housing.” This number was recently cited by the Vera Institute of Justice‘s Segregation Reduction Project. The 80,000 figure has also been used by National Geographic and The New Yorker, among others.
An earlier version of this number, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s 2000 census, was cited by the widely respected Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, convened by Vera. The Commission further broke the figure down to show types of “restricted housing.” In 2000, the BJS found 80,870 inmates in some form of segregation, including 36,499 in administrative segregation, 33,586 in disciplinary segregation, and 10,765 in protective custody. The Commission noted that the 2000 figures represented a 40 percent increase over 1995, when 57,591 inmates were in segregation. During the same period of time, the overall prison population grew by 28 percent. (See page 56 of the Commission’s 2006 report, Confronting Confinement).
The census uses the term “restricted housing,” which clearly includes segregation units outside of supermax prisons. Since it captures where prisoners are housed on a given day (June 30, 2005), it is meant to include both long-term or indefinite isolation (years or decades) as well as shorter stints in solitary (weeks or months). It may include a small number of prisoners who are held in 23-hour lockdown in double cells, a practice popular in some states. (For this reason, some advocates prefer the term “isolated confinement” to “solitary confinement”). The number is based on self-reporting by wardens and state corrections departments, so it may reflect some errors and inconsistencies. But prison officials are not, as a rule, known for their tendency to overrreport the number of inmates they hold in solitary.
It is also worth noting that the census figures do not include prisoners in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, immigrant detention centers, or local jails; if they did they would certainly be higher. We know that New York’s jails alone contain 990 isolation cells, according to the New York City Department of Corrections.
A survey of available data from a handful of states also suggest that the 80,000 figure is likely low, rather than high. Just eight states and the federal government hold some 44,000 prisoners in isolated confinement.
- In 2010, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons told CNN that there were about 11,150 federal inmates being held in “special housing.” ADX Florence holds approximately 400 of these inmates in ultra-isolation.
- In California in 2011, Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, testified before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee that approximately 3,000 inmates were held in California’s Security Housing Units, including over 1,100 at the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU alone. A 2009 report from California’s Inspector General found 8,878 inmates in Administrative Segregation Units. This means that, all told, there are close to 11,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in California.
- As reported by the Houston Chronicle based on figures from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in 2011 there were over 5,205 inmates in long-term isolation in administrative segregation, and approximately 4,000 more serving shorter terms in solitary for disciplinary violations–for a total of more than 9,000.
- According to a 2003 report by the Correctional Association, New York state had approximately 5,000 inmates in disciplinary lockdown in 2003.
- At the end of 2011, Pennyslvania Department of Corrections reported that 2,406 inmates were held in segregation in the state’s Restrictive Housing Units.
- A 2011 study carried out in Colorado by independent researchers funded by the National Institute of Corrections found that nearly 1,500 inmates, or 7% of the prison population, were in administrative segregation and a further 670 in disciplinary segregation–for a total of more than 2,100.
- In Virginia, according to a 2012 article in the Washington Post, there were 1,800 inmates in solitary confinement, 500 of whom are held at the supermax Red Onion State Prison.
- A 2007 report by the American Friends Service Committee found 1,623 inmates held in isolation in Arizona’s SHUs.
- In a 2008 report to the state legislature, the Michigan Department of Corrections said that that the daily average number of inmates held in administrative segregation in FY 2007-08 was 1,294.
In our opinion, the most accurate possible description of how many prisoners are solitary confinement in the United States would go something like this: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.”
Research for this article was provided by Sal Rodriguez.