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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 extreme solitary confinement takes place in Communication Management Units (CMUs). Despite the variety of names, the general practice of incarceration in these units and facilities is solitary confinement.
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 even inside local jails.
Some systems make a distinction between various reasons for solitary confinement. “Disciplinary 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 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 despite having done nothing wrong.
Terms in solitary range from days to several decades. Precise figures are scarce, but a number of state prison systems have made some information available.
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 between 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated persons are held in some form of isolated confinement.
In 2015, The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators released a report suggesting 80,000 to 100,000 people in state prisons were held in restrictive housing in 2014. That estimate is an extrapolation of data obtained from 34 states, housing 73 percent of all incarcerated people, which found over 66,000 people in restrictive housing. This figure does not include local jails, juvenile, military and immigration facilities.
In October 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report entitled “Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011–12.” According to the report, nearly 20 percent of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons and 18 percent of people held in local jails have 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.
A census of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons conducted in 2005 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics–and cited by the Vera Institute of Justice and many others–found more than 81,622 people held in “restricted housing.” The 2000 census of incarcerated people–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 segregation. (During the same period of time, the overall prison population grew by 28 percent.)
The census figures do not include incarcerated people in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, immigrant detention centers, or local jails; if they did, the numbers would certainly be higher.
Further, a widely accepted 2005 study found that some 25,000 of these segregated people were being held in supermax prisons around the country.
Not all people held in restrictive housing units are alone in single cells, though they generally do spend most of their days in isolated confinement, with or without a cellmate in a confined space.
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.
Individuals receive terms in 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 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 disciplinary segregation in federal prisons, for example, 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 1 hour for exercise. Exercise 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. 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 twenty-four 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 our Voices from Solitary project.
How long do people spend in solitary confinement?
The group of men incarcerated in Louisiana known as the Angola 3 have 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 recently released after spending nearly 45 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
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 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 York, California 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.”
For more on the psychological effects of solitary confinement, see our fact sheet on the topic.
Are people with mental illnesses put in solitary confinement?
Yes, in large numbers. 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 mentally ill people held in prisons and jails was 10 times greater than the mentally ill people 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. In some facilities, treatment consists of weekly or monthly mental health checks that are conducted through the feeding slot in cell doors. People with underlying mental illnesses are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide. Prisons deal with individuals perceived to be suicidal by sending them to 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. A December 2011 hearing on the solitary confinement system highlighted a surge of suicides that have taken place despite reforms.
For summaries on various court cases and examples of mental health alternatives to solitary confinement, check out the Correctional Association of New York’s fact sheet on the issue.
In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association advised limits on the use of prolonged solitary confinement against those diagnosed with a serious mental illness, saying it “should be avoided due to the potential for harm to such inmates.”
Are children held in solitary confinement?
Yes. While children are often placed into solitary for their own protection, the experience of confinement is particularly damaging to young people. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report notes: “Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general prison population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of prisoners, such as alleged gang members. Youth offenders frequently described their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal.”
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 19 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.”
In Florida, Ian Manuel spent 15 years in solitary confinement in adult prison for a crime he committed at age 13. 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 17, 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.
Children are frequently held in solitary in local jails before they have even been convicted of a crime, simply because there is nowhere else to put them. A 2010 investigation by the Texas Observer found that children are routinely held in pre-trial solitary confinement in Texas. A 16-year-old in Alaska spent 500 days in solitary while awaiting trial, and another in Tennessee spent close to two years.
Children are also held in solitary in juvenile jails and detention facilities. A 2011 California audit found that children in juvenile facilities had been held in isolation for 24 hours straight hundreds of times from January-April 2011. This is in violation of state regulations that dictate children may not be isolated more than 21 hours per day.
In Wisconsin, a 2017 lawsuit revealed that 15 to 20% of the children held at the juvenile correctional facilities Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls routinely faced solitary confinement, often for periods of 30 to 60 days. The lawsuit claimed the conditions at the facilities violated the children’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has since signed a bill approving the closure of the facilities by the year 2021.
What effect does solitary confinement have on recidivism?
Given the fact that most people will someday be released from prison, and that isolation has become ubiquitous in the American prison system, one would think considerable research would be done to measure the relationship between solitary confinement and recidivism.
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.
How much does solitary confinement cost?
Not only do solitary confinement units cost more to build than the average prison, but it also costs significantly more to house someone in isolation than it does to hold someone in the general population. 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 8th 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?
In most Western European countries, solitary confinement is rarely used, beyond a period of a few hours to a few days. The United Kingdom, for example, has approximately as many total incarcerated people as the United States has in solitary confinement. While difficult to estimate, the UK likely has no more than 500 people in solitary confinement at any given time. There are two types of isolation units in the UK, intensive management units (akin to disciplinary segregation) and longer-term isolation units called Close Supervision Centers.
In the intensive management units, people placed for disciplinary issues may be held no longer than three weeks, with over a quarter of such people in Wandsworth prison held in isolation no longer than a few hours. The Close Supervision Centers are similarly rarely used, with a typical utilization of approximately thirty cells at any given time.
In a stark difference from practices in the United States, each prison in the UK has an Independent Monitoring Board consisting of local volunteers who perform inspections of the facilities and submit an annual report. Prisons must notify the IMB of every decision to place someone in isolation within 24 hours and the IMB is obliged to visit the facility within 72 hours of notification.
In June 2015, the IMB reported that in all UK maximum security prisons only 24 individuals had been segregated for more than six months.
For more on the UK’s use of solitary confinement, refer to Solitary Watch reporter Elisa Mosler’s article on the issue.
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 is 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 15 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.”
The Committee Against Torture, official governing body of the UN Convention Against Torture that the United States ratified in 1994, has recommended that the practice of isolation be abolished. The UN Human Rights Committee has, in 1992, suggested that prolonged isolation may amount to a violation of international human rights law. Similarly the UN committee on the Rights of the Child has urged for an end to the use of solitary confinement against minors.
FAQ by Sal Rodriguez. © 2012, updated 2015. Please cite Solitary Watch and the original sources when quoting from this document.