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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. Few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement,” instead referring to prison “segregation.” 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 prisoners 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 at-risk prisoners who live in indefinite isolation despite having done nothing wrong.
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 in conceptions of what constitutes solitary confinement. However, a census of state and federal prisoners 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.” A widely accepted 2005 study found that some 25,000 of these segregated prisoners were being held in supermax prisons around the country.
The 2000 census of prisoners–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 prisoners in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, immigrant detention centers, or local jails; if they did, the numbers would certainly be higher. (Rikers Island alone has 990 isolation cells, according to the New York City Department of Corrections.)
Many states do not make public any information on the number of prisoners they hold in segregation. Some of the available data is as follows:
- In 2010, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons told CNN that there were about 11,150 federal prisoners being held in “special housing.” ADX Florence holds approximately 400 of these people 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 people 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 people in Administrative Segregation Units. A varying percentage of people in these units are held in single-cell housing.
- As reported by the Houston Chronicle based on figures from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in 2011 there were over 5,205 people 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 people in disciplinary lockdown in 2003.
- At the end of 2011, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reported that 2,406 people were held in segregation in the state’s Restrictive Housing Units.
- A 2011 study of the Colorado prison system by independent researchers funded by the National Institute of Corrections found that nearly 1,500 people, 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 people 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 people held in isolation in Arizona’s SHUs.
- In a 2008 report to the state legislature, the Michigan Department of Corrections said that the daily average number of people held in administrative segregation in FY 2007-08 was 1,294.
These eight state prison systems and the federal prison system alone hold a combined total of more than 44,000 prisoners in isolated confinement.
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. Thousands are held in indefinite solitary confinement because they have been named as gang members by other prisoners who are rewarded for the 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 group of Rastafarian men were placed in solitary–some for more than a decade–because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.
In California, for example, the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3315, outlines two dozen “Serious Rule Violations” that can result in placement in the SHU. These include “Possession of five dollars or more without authorization,” “Tattooing or possession of tattoo paraphernalia,” “Participation in a strike or work stoppage,” and “Self mutilation or attempted suicide for the purpose of manipulation.” Approximately 50 percent of people held in California SHUs may have committed no offense at all; instead, they are held in solitary due to the gang “validation” process, in which anyone deemed to be active gang members is sent to six-year terms in the SHU. Gang validation can take place based in large part on anonymous accusations. Commonly, these anonymous charges come from validated prisoners in the SHU, for whom the only hope for early release has been summarized as “Parole, Snitch, or Die.” Prisoners have also earned points toward gang validation simply by possessing the book The Art of War or making reference to prison activist George Jackson.
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 prisoners 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 prisoners 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.”
For people’s own descriptions of life in solitary confinement, see our Voices from Solitary project.
How long do people spend in solitary confinement?
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.
- California Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan testified in August 2011 that the average term in solitary confinement in California is 6.8 years. Validated gang members are sent to 6-year terms in solitary confinement (either SHUs or ASUs). In September, 2011, the CDCR released statistics relating to the length of terms in the SHU. Of the 1,111 people in the SHU, over 513 served 10 years or more, 78 of whom has been in the SHU at least 20 years; 544 others had spent more than 5 years but fewer than 10 years.
- According to the American Friends Service Committee, the average time served in the supermax units in the Arizona prison system is 5 years.
- In Texas, the average prisoner held in administrative segregation spends more than 4 years in solitary, with the longest serving prisoner being isolated for 24 years.
- At Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, a recent memo states that prisoners are on average isolated for 2.7 years, with the range of stays being 2 weeks to 7 years.
- In Colorado, the average term in solitary confinement is 18 months.
- A 2003 report by the Correctional Association of New York found that the average sentence in disciplinary segregation was 5.3 months, while hundreds of prisoners spent an average of three years in isolation. Several men in administrative segregation have been isolated for more than 25 years.
- According to an April 17th, 2003 memo, the Oregon Intensive Management Unit (IMU) “by design is not long-term housing. IMU houses individuals to provide programming toward behavior modification and to prepare them for return to general population.” However, Solitary Watch has received the housing history of one IMU prisoner who spent 12 years in the Oregon IMU before being sent to an out-of-state supermax unit.
- The 52 death row prisoners executed in 2009 had spent an average of 14 years in solitary confinement before their executions, with one spending over 30 years in isolation before execution.
- In the federal system, Thomas Silverstein (described as America’s “most isolated man”) has been held in solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order for 28 years.
- The group of Louisiana prisoners known as the Angola 3 have spent perhaps the nation’s longest terms in solitary confinement. One of them spent 29 years in solitary before being released. The other two have now entered their 40th year in solitary confinement.
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.”
The psychological toll such a bleak environment wreaks on many of those who endure it is often compared to torture. One man held at Pelican Bay SHU referred to solitary confinement as “a psychological-emotional storm” and a “ life negating emptiness.” In the federal system, Thomas Silverstein (described as America’s “most isolated man”) has been held under a “no human contact” order for 30 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 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, and 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.
A 2003 report by New York’s Correctional Association found that people diagnosed with mental illness made up 11 percent of the state’s overall prison population, they constituted nearly a quarter of the people in lockdown. Many of the SHU prisoners the CA interviewed for the report were “actively psychotic, manic, paranoid or seemingly overmedicated.” As of September 1st, 2011, 173 individuals diagnosed with mental illness were held in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison, out of a solitary confinement population of approximately 500.
In 2009, Robert Foor, an Illinois man with mental illness, was placed in isolation and “became more mentally ill, mutilating himself by cutting and biting, and [attempted] to hang himself.” He ultimately died in solitary confinement at Tamms Correctional Center. Another man held at Tamms, Anthony Gay, “cut off a part of his genitalia, which a physician identified as ‘possibly a testicle’ and hung it from a string tied to his cell door. He was treated and then sent to a ‘strip cell”‘ as punishment. Though his mental health has been notably declining, he has faced increasing isolation and longer sentences, due to incidents of throwing feces and urine at guards.
Are children held in solitary confinement?
Yes. While juveniles 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 juveniles 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 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.
Juveniles 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. Rikers Island in New York City has also been known to hold juveniles in solitary both before and after trial. In one case, a 16 year old who cursed at a guard was placed in solitary for 20 days, during which time his mother claims he “had lost 20 pounds, and his hair was falling out,” due to the anxiety and stress of the experience.
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 juveniles may not be isolated more than 21 hours per day.
What effect does solitary confinement have on recidivism?
On November 23, 2011, the California Department of Corrections published the “2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report”, the second of what CDCR promises to be an annual report of the recidivism rate of its institutions. The one-year recidivism rate for those in the SHU was 52.2 percent while those not assigned to the SHU had a one year recidivism rate of 47.6 percent. At two years, 64.9 percent vs. 60.2 percent were the figures, and by three years 69.8 percent (or, 4,189 of the 6002) were back in prison vs. 64.8 percent of those who hadn’t served time in the SHU.
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.
For example, the California Department of Corrections released the following housing costs for Pelican Bay State Prison:
- $70,641 per SHU prisoner
- $58,324 per GP prisoner
- $171,857 per PSU/EOP prisoner
- $77,740 per ASU prisoner
- $43,640 per Level l prisoner
In 2003, the cost of housing a level 5 Administrative Maximum, or “supermax,” prisoner at Ohio State Penitentiary was $149 daily and $54,385 a year. The cost of housing someone in maximum-security was $101 a day and $26,865 a year. For people held in general population, the cost was $63 a day, or $22,995 a year–less than half the cost of an Administrative Segregation prisoner.
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, Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois cost $73 million to build in 1998 and was designed to hold 500 prisoners, 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 prisoners 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.
What are the alternatives to solitary confinement?
Given the high number of people held in solitary confinement, many states have or have been called on to reexamine the means by which they classify certain prisoners as someone who ought to be segregated.
In a 2011 National Institute of Corrections study of the Colorado prison found that the current use of solitary confinement (approximately 7% of the Colorado prison population) could be reduced if the classification system were reformed and administrative changes made. On January 20th, 2012, it was reported by the Denver Post that the Colorado Department of Corrections began transferring 321 people out of administrative segregation. In November 2011, there were approximately 1,500 people held in administrative segregation and an additional 670 people in disciplinary segregation units. The DOC reviewed cases of people held in segregation for over one year. Of the approximately 870 cases reviewed by the Colorado DOC, 37 percent (321) were determined better suited for general population. As of January 31st, the number of people in administrative segregation was down to 1,114 males and 24 females.
The reform of classification systems led to the significant reduction of Mississippi’s solitary confinement population, including the transferring out of approximately 800 supermax prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Rather than leading to an increase in problems, there were significant decreases in violence and the need for violent cell extractions.
Maine’s Department of Corrections, under the leadership of Joseph Ponte, has slashed the number of its Special Management Units by nearly half, from a consistent 132 to 69 as of today. The reforms came about in response to the reality that many people were placed in the SMU for small infractions, which subsequently led to many having to spend increasing periods of time in the SMU due to lashing out against isolation.
Ponte has implemented a number of changes, which include:
- Ordering that people not be placed in isolation longer than 72 hours without his personal approval
- Imposing a seven-day limit on supermax stays for prisoners being investigated for in-prison crimes (in the past, a prisoner might languish for months as an investigation dragged on without him being charged)
- Reclassifying and moving out of the supermax many prisoners who simply appeared to be there unnecessarily
- Stopping the once-frequent brutal “cell extractions” of uncooperative and often people with mental illness; there have been none since May
- Requiring guards to use what Ponte calls “informal sanctions” to discipline unruly prisoners, like taking away commissary or recreation privileges, as alternatives to “the hole”
The model being used by Ponte comes from the one used by Rodney Bouffard, the superintendent of the South Portland Long Creek Youth Development Center, a juvenile detention facility. Bouffard reduced the duration of solitary confinement in the facility, which has seen a drop in recidivism from 75 percent to 20 percent within a year.
How do other countries use solitary confinement?
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.
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?
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.
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.”
FAQ by Sal Rodriguez. © 2012. Please cite Solitary Watch and the original sources when quoting from this document.