In theory, solitary confinement (also: isolation, segregation) is for the worst of the worst prisoners—those who cause serious, usually violent, disruptions in the general prison population. In practice, these kinds of prisoners make up only a small minority of the segregated population in U.S. prisons.
The United States is a world leader in the use of solitary confinement
A prisoner in solitary will spend 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell with little or no human contact or recreational activities. This can continue for years. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in some kind of segregated housing. More recent estimates by Solitary Watch report that the U.S. houses at least 80,000 prisoners in isolation on any given day.
“Solitary confinement” takes place in multiple forms. There are “supermax prisons” where nearly all inmates are in isolation. At other facilities, inmates are placed in “disciplinary segregation” because they have allegedly violated prison rules, which in some cases simply means that they have talked back to a prison guard; or “administrative segregation” because they are mentally ill, they need protection from other prisoners, or they have information on disruptive incidents that are set for hearing. These prisoners often receive exactly the same treatment in solitary confinement as the truly disruptive. Experts have found that inmates in solitary confinement can experience psychosis, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, desires for self-mutilation, and severe anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Seventy percent of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay Supermax prison reported feeling like they were on the verge of a nervous break-down, according to a New York Times article. Personal accounts of solitary confinement nearly always include hearing prisoners screaming throughout the night, fecal matter smeared on walls of cells, and additional psychological trauma caused by prison guards.
Approximately 50 percent of all prison suicides take place in solitary confinement, despite the fact that segregated prisoners make up only three to five percent of the whole U.S. prison population. The mental health issues raise serious problems for the safety of our communities. Studies show that prisoners kept in solitary confinement more frequently attack other inmates and guards when returned to the general prison population. They are also more likely to recidivate after reentry into society, and more likely to do so by committing violent crimes.
States are beginning to take action
In the mid 2000’s, Mississippi’s Department of Corrections created a profile of prisoners they believed should be in solitary confinement only to find that 80 percent of the state’s segregated prisoners did not fit the profile.
Mississippi responded to this finding by narrowly defining the criteria for sending an inmate to solitary confinement. Today, prison guards can only segregate those prisoners who commit serious rule infractions, are active high-level gang members, or attempt escape from any secure facility, and only the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections can segregate someone for a different reason. Smaller incidences of rule breaking are now remedied with reductions in privileges and other, far cheaper penalties that can replace solitary confinement. Isolated mentally ill inmates are treated with a much more appropriate step-by-step process of reentry into the prison population or society. Mississippi also provides the corrections officers in solitary confinement units with special training on how to treat mentally ill patients.
These reforms led to an 85 percent reduction in the numbers of prisoners in isolation; a nearly 70 percent reduction in the amount of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence; a plummet in the use of force by prison staff; and millions in savings—$5 million of which came from shutting down one of its segregated housing prisons. In so doing, there was not a single incidence of violence as the isolated prisoners were transitioned gradually back into the general prison population. Because of these surprising results, Ohio quickly followed suit with similar reforms, and now several states (Massachusetts, California, and Colorado, among others) have significantly reduced the numbers of inmates in isolation by issuing clear rules and requiring mental health screenings. They have saved millions of dollars in the process.
JF's Senior Policy Advisor Heather Rice-Minus talks
about solitary confinement on Religion & Ethics