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

New Report Estimates U.S. Prisons Hold Nearly 50,000 People in Solitary Confinement

by Jennifer Taylor, Director, Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School

Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing, a new study co-authored by the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School, estimates that between 41,000 and 48,000 people were held in isolation in U.S. prison cells as of July 2021. The report focused on solitary confinement that held individuals in isolated cells for an average of 22 hours or more per day for 15 days or more.

In the course of nearly a decade, CLA and the Liman Center have published six reports based on prison officials’ responses to surveys about their use of solitary confinement. Together, these reports represent the only longitudinal, nationwide database documenting the reported use of solitary confinement in prisons in the United States.

The latest report, released August 24, 2022, estimates fewer people held in solitary confinement than in the past and growing support for reform.

According to Time-in-Cell, three states reported holding no one in isolation in July 2021, two other states reported fewer than ten people in solitary, and ten states reported not using solitary in any of their women’s prisons. In contrast, in 2014, every jurisdiction reported using solitary confinement. That year, researchers estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in solitary in prisons throughout the United States.

The new report also examined the demographics of those in isolation, finding that jurisdictions continued to report using solitary confinement to detain people identified as having “serious mental illness.” Racial disparities also remained; in women’s prisons, the report found, Black people are 20% of those incarcerated but 30% of those in solitary.

This research intersects with efforts around the country to limit or end the use of solitary confinement. These efforts have been spearheaded by people in prison, as well as by community members, by organizations, by prison officials, and by legislators. National campaigns such as Unlock the Box and Stop Solitary have brought attention to the harms of solitary confinement. The recent death of Solitary author Albert Woodfox, who spent more than 40 years in isolation at Louisiana’s Angola prison before he was released in 2016, has also renewed attention to the issue.

Many factors are influencing growing changes. In some cases, prisons and jails are revising their policies to limit the number and categories of people placed in isolation. Moreover, between 2018 and 2020, legislators in some 25 states introduced bills to limit the practice, and some 15 states enacted legislation. Since 2020, bills have been introduced in some 30 state legislatures. In 2021, seven states enacted legislation aiming to curb the use of solitary confinement, and a few courts have held that specific forms of isolation are unlawful. Declining prison populations also play a role, as increases in solitary confinement use during and after the 1980s corresponded with increasing numbers of people in prison.

“In the 1980s, people promoted solitary confinement as a way to deal with violence in prisons,” Judith Resnik, Yale’s Arthur Liman professor of law, told The Guardian. “It is now seen as a problem itself that needs to be solved.” 

Read the full report at:

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