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” or placement in “restrictive housing”. As this may be done for punitive, disciplinary or purportedly protective reasons, the names vary. Whatever the terminology, the practice entails a deliberate effort to limit social contact for a determinate or indeterminate period of time.

How many people are held in it?

The number of people held in solitary confinement in the US 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. That said, currently available estimates suggest 80,000-100,000 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 80,000-100,000 people in state prisons were held in restrictive housing in 2014. That estimate is an extrapolation of data obtained from 34 states, housing 73% of all prisoners. It found more than 66,000 people in restrictive housing. This figure does not include local jails, juvenile, military and immigration facilities. Terms in solitary range from days to several decades but precise figures are scarce.

Who gets put in solitary confinement?

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 drugs, ignoring orders or using profanity. Others have ended up in solitary confinement because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of “protection”, are gay or transgender, are Muslim, because of their political beliefs, or have reported rape or abuse by prison officials.

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Terms in solitary confinement are 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 hearings are often perfunctory. Prison officials serve as prosecutors, judges and juries, and prisoners are rarely allowed legal representation.

What are conditions like?

Life in solitary confinement means up 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 for the remaining five days, with one hour outside 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 not be allowed to leave their cells for visits or to make telephone calls.

Solitary confinement cells generally measure from 6ft x 9ft to 8ft x 10ft. 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 in enforced idleness, denied the opportunity to work or attend prison programmes. Sometimes, they are banned from having televisions, radios, art supplies and even reading materials in their cells.

What are the psychological effects?

A study involving extensive interviews with people held in the security housing units at Pelican Bay prison in North California in 1993 found that solitary confinement induces a psychiatric disorder characterised 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 confinement at Pelican Bay indicated high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive rumination, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands and heart palpitations.

Testifying 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,” he said. “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.”

Are people with mental illnesses put in solitary confinement?

Yes, in large numbers. Over the last 30 years, prisons and jails have become the US’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers, and solitary confinement cells in particular are now used to house thousands of individuals with mental illness. In a 2003 report, Human Rights Watch estimated, based on available state data, that one-third to half of those held in isolation had some form of mental illness.

How much does it cost?

Not only do solitary confinement units cost more to build than the average prison, 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 (£53,000).

  • Information provided by Solitary Watch contributed to this explainer.

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