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Solitary Confinement Reforms Sweeping the Nation but Still Not Enough

by Christopher Zoukis

Solitary confinement is “worse than any torment of the body” – so said famous British author Charles Dickens. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American prisons in 1831, added that solitary “devours the victim incessantly and unmercifully; it does not reform, it kills.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the constitutionality of “administrative segregation,” a common form of solitary confinement, though in his concurrence to the majority opinion in Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187 (2015), Justice Anthony Kennedy revealed his revulsion at the long-term use of solitary in correctional facilities. “The human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation long has been understood, and questioned, by writers and commentators,” he wrote. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.28].

“We’re talking about putting someone in a room the size of a parking space,” agreed Robert T. Gonzales, chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights. “This is inhumane.”

Yet the use of security housing units and restrictive housing units within U.S. prisons remains widespread, affecting as many as 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners according to a 2015 report by the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.57]. In 2016, the Obama administration eliminated solitary confinement for juveniles held in federal facilities and restricted its use for other federal prisoners.

A resolution passed by the American Bar Association in early 2018 called on state officials to limit the use of solitary confinement, and allow it “only in exceptional cases as a measure of last resort, where less restrictive settings are insufficient, and for no longer than is necessary to address the specific reason for placement, typically not to exceed 15 consecutive days.”

Additionally, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) adopted new standards for solitary confinement in April 2016, while the year before the ASCA issued a report critical of long-term segregation. [See: PLN, May 2017, p.20; Nov. 2015, p.28].

But some states had already begun to implement reform efforts.

In 2016, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) was one of five state prison systems selected by the Vera Institute of Justice for a pilot program to reduce the use of solitary confinement. Under the NCDPS’ new disciplinary policy, segregation is generally limited to no more than 30 days.

The new rules still allow certain prisoners who are repeatedly disruptive to be isolated for longer periods of time. But NCDPS spokesman Keith Acree said the rules are part of a larger effort to use “evidence-based practices for managing inmate behavior, thereby creating a safer prison environment.”

Also, in 2017, Massachusetts lawmakers introduced bills that would restrict the use of solitary in that state’s prison system, allowing prisoners to be held in segregation for up to 180 days a year rather than up to a decade. The bills also required a review by prison officials of any stay in isolation every 15 to 90 days. Some of the provisions made it into criminal justice reform legislation signed by the governor in April 2018.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice cited Virginia’s success in reducing the number of prisoners in segregation. At Red Onion State Prison, a “supermax” near the Kentucky border, two-thirds of the facility’s 750 prisoners were held in solitary in 2011. By 2016 that number had been more than halved as the state instituted a “step-down” program that incentivizes prisoners to earn their way out of segregation units.

Though not a reform effort, in 2017 Arizona ended its longstanding policy of holding all death row prisoners in solitary confinement; the change was part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit over the policy. [See related article on p.34].

Most condemned Arizona prisoners are now held at the Central Unit in Florence, where they have more recreation time and can eat and interact with other prisoners. Carson McWilliams, the division director for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said the new arrangement is safer and more economical.

“If you can keep the inmates actively involved in something, whether sports or work, it’s positive,” he observed.

A similar segregation policy in place in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) resulted in the ACLU filing a lawsuit in January 2018 on behalf of five death row prisoners. They had been in solitary confinement for periods ranging from 16 to 27 years.

The state holds 156 prisoners in isolation while awaiting execution, though no prisoner has been put to death in Pennsylvania since July 1999 and only three have been executed since 1976. Governor Tom Wolfe placed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2015. Yet death row prisoners remain in solitary, allowed two hours of exercise per day and three showers a week.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said the punitive and corrective aspects of solitary confinement are “thrown out the window when it comes to prisoners sentenced to death.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2013, p.32].

“Solitary confinement is one of the most damaging things that you can do to a human being,” he stated. “People lose their ability to interact with humans, because they’ve been deprived” of social contact.

Effective September 1, 2017, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) eliminated the use of solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes. The change affected only a small number of prisoners – just 76 were held in punitive segregation in July 2017. Over 4,000 other prisoners remained in administrative isolation according to TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark – reportedly for their own protection, to separate them from prison gangs or to minimize danger to staff or other prisoners. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.53].

“You still need security detention because the Hannibal Lecters of the world are still out there,” agreed Lance Lowry, former head of the Texas Correctional Employees union in Huntsville. “There’s still some bad actors in prison that will hurt people.”

Jessica Sandoval, the chief strategist with the ACLU National Prison Project’s Stop Solitary Confinement Campaign, declared that “we are at a tipping point in this country” regarding the use of solitary confinement. As an example, North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch said she realized that “the more people are put in segregation, the more people will end up acting in ways that require segregation.”

Bertsch, who served as president of the ASCA, said she now relies on programs that emphasize behavior management, with more treatment and more frequent assessments. She also stated she was unable to find evidence to support the fears expressed by guards that limiting the use of segregation as a means of punishing prisoners would compromise staff safety.

“It’s unassailable that solitary confinement causes psychiatric harm,” declared Dr. Stuart Grassian.

The former Harvard Medical School physician and researcher is credited with identifying a syndrome often triggered by solitary that results in prisoners experiencing agitation, confusion, paranoia and delusions. A century ago, studies identified the same findings, Dr. Grassian said, adding that research into the effects of long-term sensory deprivation among U.S. prisoners during the Korean War also informed his conclusions.

The long-term effects of solitary include intolerance to sensory stimulation, with prisoners often re-creating their living conditions in small, windowless rooms after their release from prison as a coping mechanism.

Dr. Brie Williams, criminal justice and health program director and professor at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, said solitary confinement creates “ubiquitously unhealthy” conditions and causes or worsens chronic mental health issues, especially dementia – common among older prisoners – which leads them to violate rules that land them back in solitary in a recurring cycle.

Minnesota State Rep. Nick Zerwas noted the population of prisoners in segregation is disproportionately skewed toward those with mental health problems.

“We are using solitary confinement to isolate and push aside the mentally ill,” he said.

Racial bias is also apparent, according to Marc Levin, vice-president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and co-founder of the Right on Crime movement. He said Texas prisons place “a lot of Mexican-Americans ... right into solitary confinement as suspected gang members” without due process. As a result, he concluded that segregation is the government’s “most oppressive deprivation of liberty.”

But not all state prison systems have taken steps to reform their solitary confinement practices.

“We [in Alabama] continue to see the mentally ill kept in extreme isolation, and this is driving a steep rise in suicides,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nationally, 18.4 of every 100,000 prisoners commit suicide. The rate in Alabama is over twice as high. Rather than raise staffing levels, decrease the number of mentally ill prisoners held in solitary or improve living conditions in badly-maintained segregation cells, the Alabama Department of Corrections (AL DOC) has instead watched the number of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement units increase, from 196 in 2014 to 274 in 2018.

The AL DOC is both overcrowded and understaffed, complicating the task of properly supervising segregation cells – which have design features that include light fixtures that can be dismantled and used to commit suicide, as well as hanging points.

“If you want to kill yourself, you can climb up on the sink and hang yourself from the sprinkler head,” Morris said.

The AL DOC, like most prison systems, also keeps prisoners in solitary far longer than 15 days – the limit that has been recommended by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in a position statement that says, “Prolonged (greater than 15 consecutive days) solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and harmful to an individual’s health.”

The United Nations considers more than 15 days in solitary to be a form of torture, but the federal Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections generally do not follow UN policies as binding requirements. 

Sources: Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gloucester Daily Times, Mother Jones,,,,

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