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Number Held in Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons and Jails Tops 122,000

A new report released in May 2023 by Solitary Watch and Unlock the Box, groups dedicated to abolishing the use of solitary confinement, found that a lot more Americans are locked up in solitary confinement than previous estimates indicated: 122,840 people, caged in isolation for 22 or more hours on any given day in U.S. prisons and jails. The report claims to be more accurate than previous surveys focused only on solitary confinement in prisons. PLN has covered one such a report, which estimated from a limited data set that between 41,000 and 48,000 people were held in isolation as of July 2021. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.42.]

In contrast, the new report is the first to combine data from federal and local jails in addition to federal and state prisons. Like the earlier report, it includes the most recent data available from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) – complied in 2019 – but adds state prison systems that did not report to BJS. The new analysis also added data from a survey of local jails conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice. Solitary Watch calls it “The most accurate count to date of people being held in solitary confinement.”

However, there is a significant difference between estimating that 122,840 individuals were held in solitary confinement versus 48,000. What happened? For starters, the new report used private surveys to collect data – in addition to sources collected by BJS – as well as the Vera Institute’s survey of jails. The earlier report also counted only prisoners held in solitary confinement in federal and state prisons and only those kept there for 15 days or more. The new report counts all those who spent any number of days in a cell for 22 hours or more in all facilities combined – both prisons and jails. It is important to note, though, that no report is a complete tally of people locked up in solitary confinement because juvenile and immigration detention centers were not included.

Jessica Sandoval, Director of Unlock the Box and co-author of the new study, calls locking over 122,000 people in solitary a stain on our nation. “It increases suicide rates, worsens mental illness, causes lasting psychological, neurological, and physical damage, fails to reduce prison violence, and makes it more difficult for people to reintegrate into society after they are released from prison,” she noted.

Thefindings are a bleak reminder of the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S. Jean Casella, director of Solitary Watch and the report’s other co-author, calls it a humanitarian crisis. The United Nation has called it torture taking place on U.S. soil.

However, several states have passed legislation to limit or ban its use – including 12 states in 2019, the year whose data is analyzed in the report. Another 28 states introduced legislation that year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Several legal challenges to solitary are working their way through the courts. Solitary Watch provides a list of 35 relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1866. Texas civil rights attorney Merel Pontier, who studies the indefinite solitary confinement of Death Row prisoners, has published important research, including a compilation of cases in eight states that have led to changes in restrictive housing.

The new studyadds to this growing body of evidence that solitary confinement is both harmful to prisoners and an ineffective way to control their behavior. See: Calculating Torture, Solitary Watch (2023).  

Additional source: Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

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