Solitary Watch is a web-based project aimed at bringing the widespread use of solitary confinement out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. Our mission is to provide the public—as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates, people in prison and their families—with the first centralized source of unfolding news, original reporting, firsthand accounts, and background research on solitary confinement in the United States. (Scroll down for a detailed project description.)
Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Co-Directors and Editors-in-Chief
Sarah Shourd, Contributing Editor
Sal Rodriguez, Associate Editor
Lisa Dawson, Assistant Editor and Social Media Manager
Victoria Law, Aviva Stahl, Contributors
Tausif Khan, Keli Cochran, Reporter/Researchers
Eighty 20 Group, Development Consultants
Past Reporter/Researchers: Ryan Brimmer, Beth Broyles, Julian Burns, Shae Cali, David H. Cloud, Rachel M. Cohen, Daniel H. Goldman, Dina Levy, Valeria Monfrini, Elisa Mosler, Alicia Ng, Hannah Taleb
Lois Ahrens, Director, The Real Cost of Prisons Project
Stephen B. Bright, President and Senior Counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights
David Bruck, Professor and Director, Virginia Captial Case Clearinghouse, Washington and Lee University School of Law
Marina Drummer, Administrator, Community Futures Collective
David C. Fathi, Director, ACLU National Prison Project
Bonnie Kerness, Coordinator, Prison Watch Project and STOPMAX Campaign, American Friends Service Committee
Robert King, activist and author; survivor of 29 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Pententiary, Angola
Terry Kupers, MD, MSP, Institute Professor, The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology; clinical psychiatrist and expert in forensic mental health
Rev. Stan Moody, Pastor, Meeting House Church, Manchester, ME; former chaplain, Maine State Prison
Michael B. Mushlin, Professor, Pace University School of Law
Wilbert Rideau, journalist and author; former prisoner and Angolite editor at the Louisiana State Pententiary, Angola
Laura Rovner, Associate Professor and Director, Civil Rights Clinic, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Meryl Schwartz, Deputy Director, The Innocence Project
Charles Sullivan, Executive Director, CURE
Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative
Affiliations are for identification purposes only.
A printable one-page description of Solitary Watch can be downloaded here: ABOUT SOLITARY WATCH (pdf)
The use and abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons is one of the most pressing domestic human rights issues in America today—and also one of the most invisible. Today, at least 25,000 individuals are being held in long-term solitary in the nation’s “supermax” facilities. According to available data, the total number of men, women, and children living in solitary confinement in all prisons exceeds 80,000.
Far from being a last-resort measure reserved for the “worst of the worst,” solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in many prisons. This despite the fact that it has never been shown to serve any legitimate penological purpose, and may actually increase both prison violence and recidivism. Today, individuals can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, using drugs, ignoring orders, or using profanity. Thousands more are held in indefinite solitary confinement because they have been “validated” as gang members, based on highly questionable information. Others have ended up in solitary because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of “protection,” are gay or transgender, are Muslim, have unsavory political beliefs, or report rape or abuse by prison officials. In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarian men have been in solitary for ten years because they refuse to cut their hair on religious grounds.
For the people who endure it, life in solitary confinement means spending at least 23 hours a day in a cell that measures, on average, 6 x 9 feet, within supermax prisons or prison units that have made a science out of isolation. Their meals generally come through slots in the solid steel doors of their cells, as do any communications with prison staff. Some are permitted to exercise one hour a day, alone, in a fenced or walled “dog run.” Individuals in solitary confinement may be denied visits, telephone calls, television, reading materials, and art supplies. And they can remain in isolation for months, years, or decades. In Louisiana, two men now in their sixties and seventies have been in solitary confinement for more than 41 years.
Numerous studies have found evidence of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement. One recent federal court case called solitary confinement units “virtual incubators of psychoses–seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities” (Ruiz v. Johnson 2001). As little as a week in solitary has been shown to affect EEG activity, while longer stretches produce psychopathologies at an alarmingly high rate. For those already suffering from or prone to mental illness–which in some states can make up nearly half of all inmates in solitary–solitary confinement can cause irreparable psychological damage, as well as extreme mental anguish. Studies in New York and California have shown that a highly disproportionate number of prison suicides take place in solitary confinement.
Polls show that a clear majority of Americans oppose the use of torture under any circumstances, even on foreign terrorism suspects. Yet conditions in U.S. prisons and jails, which at times transgress the boundaries of humane treatment, have produced little outcry. The widespread practice of solitary confinement, in particular, has received scant media attention, and has yet to find a firm place in the public discourse or on political platforms.
Solitary Watch produces a daily blog, as well as longer investigative articles and fact sheets on various aspects of solitary confinement, and maintains a comprehensive library of resources on solitary confinement. A quarterly print edition is sent free of charge to prisoners and advocates. Solitary Watch also publishes “Voices from Solitary”—firsthand writing and video testimonies that give a human face to the facts and figures, and to a subset of people that is even more invisible than the prison population at large.
Recent challenges to the use and abuse of solitary confinement by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, and National Religious Campaign Against Torture, as well as grassroots groups and people in prison themselves, clearly show that this is an issue whose time has come. The goal of Solitary Watch is to support and inform these efforts by providing vital information and reporting, and to help place solitary confinement on the public agenda as an undeniable issue of basic human rights.
Solitary Watch functions as an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. Solitary Watch is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, which serves as its fiscal sponsor for all grants and donations. Please click here to learn how you can support the project.