Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Association of State Correctional Administrators Study Criticizes Solitary Confinement

Association of State Correctional Administrators Study Criticizes Solitary Confinement

by Derek Gilna

In August 2015, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), made up of the heads of state prison systems, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and large jails, in conjunction with the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program of Yale Law School, released a study sharply critical of the use of solitary confinement in U.S. correctional facilities.

The study surveyed 34 facilities nationwide that hold almost 3/4 of the state and federal prison population, and estimated that up to 100,000 prisoners are held in some form of solitary confinement – more than previous estimates.

Whether termed “administrative segregation,” “disciplinary segregation” or “protective custody,” it typically means the same thing – prisoners are kept in their cells at least 22 hours a day, denied access to almost all programming, limited to perhaps one phone call a month and confined to an area about the size of a large bathroom. Many are held in such conditions indefinitely, and often the amount of time they are confined is counted not in days, weeks or months, but in years.

Corrections officials have finally begun to acknowledge that such practices must be reformed, and they are not alone.

Several U.S. Supreme Court Justices have opined – but only in dicta, or non-binding commentary – that they believe solitary confinement is fundamentally unsound. In one decision, Justice Kennedy noted “the human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation” had not been “a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest,” and wondered whether more “workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.” See: Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187 (2015).

In another case, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg jointly criticized the “dehumanizing effect” of segregation, citing “studies finding that solitary confinement can cause prisoners to experience ‘anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations, and self-mutilations,’ among many other symptoms.” See: Glossip v. Gross, 135 S.Ct. 2726 (2015).

The joint ASCA-Liman study noted that changes have been proposed: “In 2013, ASCA adopted guidelines on Restrictive Status Housing Policy that aimed to constrain the use of isolating settings.” Further, sixteen “correctional directors and administrators with first-hand experience supervising solitary confinement units in prisons across the United States filed an amicus brief in the ... Supreme Court,” arguing that “the Constitution requires individualized classification before a person could be placed in administrative segregation.”

Congress has also expressed interest in reviewing solitary confinement practices, with U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond proposing a “National Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Commission.” In March 2015, Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul introduced a bill called the Redeem Act (S.675), which aims to ban the use of solitary in juvenile facilities for “discipline, punishment, retaliation, staffing shortages, administrative convenience, or any other reason other than as a temporary response to” misbehavior that might cause serious harm. In addition, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin has held two hearings on solitary confinement, in 2012 and 2014. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.1].

The federal Bureau of Prisons has not escaped scrutiny. At the behest of Senator Durbin, the BOP agreed to an independent audit of its solitary confinement policies and practices. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.36]. Unfortunately, the resulting 242-page audit report, while recommending minor reforms, upheld the practice of placing thousands of prisoners in segregation for extended periods of time. The audit was conducted by CNA, a defense contractor; as of June 2014, over 10,700 federal prisoners were housed in segregation units at BOP facilities.

The ASCA-Liman study concluded by explaining that pressure for change and a reduction in the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement comes not only from prisoners’ rights groups and legislators, but also from many corrections officials, most of whom agree that segregation causes societal and mental health problems that in many cases actually make correctional facilities less safe than if alternatives were provided, such as incentives for good behavior and adequate mental health care.

There are some encouraging signs that the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment, control and discipline is waning. For example, the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or Mandela Rules, updated in 2015, now include restrictions on the use of solitary. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.38]. Also, there are now limits on the segregation of juveniles and mentally ill offenders in New York City’s jail system [see: PLN, July 2015, p.21], and Colorado has achieved a drastic reduction in the number of prisoners held in solitary. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.1]. Plus there is the recent settlement by California’s prison system that includes significant improvements to segregation practices in that state. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.28].

“[C]hanges are underway at both the state and federal levels,” the ASCA said in a September 2, 2015 statement. “Correctional leaders across the country are committed to reducing the number of people in restrictive housing and altering what it means to be there.”

Not everyone is happy about curtailing the use of solitary confinement, though.

“Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience,” the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association stated in response to the ASCA-Liman study, “and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis.”

Sources: “Time-In-Cell: The ASCA-Liman 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison,” The Liman Program, Yale Law School Association of State Correctional Administrators (August 2015); National Law Journal; The New York Times; www.solitarywatch.com; Huffington Post

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Davis v. Ayala

Glossip v. Gross