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ACLU Report: Women Uniquely Harmed by Solitary Confinement

In April 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report on the use of solitary confinement for women prisoners in the United States. The report concluded that while solitary was an extreme punishment that should not be used on anyone unless lesser measures have failed and the prisoner is a current serious threat to institutional safety, women have unique issues that make them more vulnerable to being harmed by solitary than men.

The report used the American Bar Association’s definition of solitary confinement: “housing a prisoner in conditions characterized by substantial isolation from other prisoners, whether pursuant to disciplinary, administrative, or classification action.” Recent data estimates there are between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners held in solitary confinement in U.S. detention facilities. The effects of solitary on prisoners have been well studied, but its effects specifically on women are less known.

The over 200,000 women in our nation’s prisons and jails face a number of problems unique to their gender. The use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill is recognized by human rights experts and the United Nations as a form of torture; placing mentally ill prisoners in solitary has been shown to exacerbate their illness, often leading to suicide attempts. Both men and women with mental health conditions are often found in solitary confinement because their illnesses cause them to behave in ways that lead to disciplinary action. However, women in prison suffer from mental illness at a much higher rate than their male counterparts – 73% of state and 61% of federal women prisoners, compared to 55% of state and 44% of federal male prisoners. This implies that a much higher percentage of women held in solitary confinement have mental health conditions.

Solitary confinement is also known to cause trauma among victims of past sexual abuse. Such trauma includes reliving the sexual abuse and feelings of not being safe, caused in part because prisoners are watched at all times, even in the most private of moments such as using the toilet and showering. Almost 60% of women state prisoners reported past sexual abuse compared to 16.1% of male state prisoners. In federal prisons, 39.9% of women and 7.2% of men reported previous sexual abuse, while in jails the rate was 47.6% for women and 12.9% for men.

Women in solitary confinement are often observed by and under the supervision of male guards without a female guard present. International organizations, human rights groups and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) warn against allowing cross-gender searches and viewing of naked prisoners by guards. Nonetheless this practice persists in U.S. prisons and jails, which also increases the probability of staff sexual misconduct.

Of course the children of incarcerated women suffer when their mother is in solitary confinement, where visits, if allowed at all, almost never involve personal contact. Around 62% of women state prisoners and 56% of women in federal prisons have minor children. A much larger percentage of women prisoners were living with their children prior to their incarceration compared to male prisoners with children. Thus, the damage to the parent-child relationship caused by incarceration, including solitary confinement, hits women especially hard.

There have been many incidents where prisoners in solitary have not received their prescription medications. Prisoners must also rely on staff to provide them with basic items such as toilet paper and sanitary pads, and are sometimes left waiting for days due to shortages.

All of these factors combine to cause stress and mental health issues among women in solitary confinement. The effect is shown by the fact that around half of all successful suicides in prison are committed by the relatively small number of prisoners who have served time in solitary.

In New York, a mentally ill Rikers Island prisoner, Candie Hailey, spent over two years in solitary confinement according to a February 17, 2016 news report. “I would take the feces and I put it all over me,” she stated. “I said, ‘If you’re gonna treat me like a dog, I’m gonna act like one.’” After being diagnosed with a myriad of mental health disorders, attempting suicide at least eight times and spending three years in jail awaiting trial, the court found her not guilty and she was released.

A disturbing trend is the use of solitary confinement for women who report staff sexual misconduct. Sometimes they are placed in solitary as “punishment for lying about the assault,” while other times it is allegedly for their “own protection.” The effect is the same. For example, New Mexico prisoner Lisa Jaramillo was isolated for 100 days as punishment for lying about multiple staff sexual assaults. But she was telling the truth, and eventually received $66,000 in damages in a civil rights lawsuit. Placing women prisoners in solitary for reporting sexual abuse creates a disincentive for them to disclose such incidents.

Solitary confinement also has a long history of being used against prisoners who complain about their conditions of confinement. Carol Lester, 73, who was serving three years in a New Mexico prison for embezzlement, was placed in solitary for five weeks after complaining about the medical department’s failure to provide her prescribed cancer medication. She has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging dangerously inadequate medical care and retaliation by prison officials.

Some facilities have begun housing two prisoners per segregation cell, suggesting the practice should therefore no longer be classified as “solitary.” It remains questionable whether this double-celling policy is merely a product of overcrowding rather than genuine concern for prisoners who lack human interaction when put in a cell alone.

“Solitary confinement traumatized me far more than being in prison did. And prison traumatized me,” said former federal prisoner Evie Litwok, who was quoted in a 2015 Truthout article. Litwok spent seven weeks double-celled in solitary for disseminating information about the death of another prisoner due to medical neglect. “You have lost your freedom in a way you never have thought of,” she added.

Pregnant women should never be subjected to solitary confinement according to the United Nations’ Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, as they are at especially high risk of psychological damage due to isolation and solitary can curtail their access to prenatal care. Nonetheless, this remains a common practice in U.S. detention facilities.

One Illinois prisoner had to stop taking her prescription anti-depression medication due to her pregnancy. That caused her to require extra sleep. One day she didn’t get up for a meal fast enough, and was sent to solitary confinement as punishment. She suffered from extreme anxiety in the overheated solitary cell as the guards ignored her requests, including for drinking water, despite the fact that pregnant women are at high risk for dehydration.

Transgender women are also at high risk in prison. The usual approach for authorities faced with people who were born male but identify as female is to send them to a male prison and place them in “protective custody.” But protective custody is typically just another form of solitary confinement.

Once in isolation, transgender women are often denied the medically-prescribed hormones necessary to maintain their treatment; this may cause original gender characteristics such as facial hair to reappear and their breasts to shrink.

Prolonged time in solitary confinement is often so harsh that transgender women will sometimes request release into the general population despite the real danger of sexual assault by other prisoners. Transgender prisoners received special attention in the PREA standards, which require individualized housing assignments based on gender identity rather than physical characteristics, limit the use of protective custody and protect against abusive searches.

The ACLU report included a number of recommendations for restricting and reducing the use of solitary confinement, especially for women prisoners.

Sources: “Worse than Second-Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States,” ACLU (April 2014);;; The New York Times;

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