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Published by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

Solitary Confinement
Is long-term isolation of prisoners inhumane?


ebate is growing over the isolation of U.S. prison
inmates in virtually round-the-clock solitary confinement. When the practice began booming in
the late 1980s, politicians and some prison ad-

ministrators — many supporting the construction of special “supermax” facilities — said prison safety demanded that “the worst of
the worst” inmates be held in prolonged isolation. But even some
supporters of long-term solitary acknowledge that many prison
systems have used the strategy to warehouse mentally ill inmates.
A growing number of federal court decisions prohibit placing the
mentally ill in strict isolation, citing evidence that it aggravates
their condition. Recently, some states have reduced the number of

Relatives of inmates at the Tamms supermax prison in
Illinois support Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close the
facility. Union officials representing prison guards say
closure would cost 250 jobs and raise the danger level
in institutions to which Tamms prisoners
would be transferred.

prisoners in long-term isolation. But in Illinois, guards protesting


the planned closure of a supermax argue that transferring inmates


to a conventional prison poses grave danger.


CQ Researcher • Sept. 14, 2012 •
Volume 22, Number 32 • Pages 765-788

THE ISSUES ....................767
BACKGROUND ................773
CHRONOLOGY ................775
AT ISSUE........................781
OUTLOOK ......................783


BIBLIOGRAPHY ................786
THE NEXT STEP ..............787


CQ Researcher



• Does long-term solitary
confinement constitute
• Is separating the “worst
of the worst” from other
prisoners beneficial?
• Does long-term solitary
confinement make normal
prisoners mentally ill?



Repentance in Isolation
Early prisons adopted
solitary confinement to
encourage penitence.


Supreme Displeasure
In 1890 the Supreme
Court said a condemned
man couldn’t be held in



Alcatraz, opened as a
federal penitentiary in
1934, was the forerunner
of supermax prisons.
Constitutional Issues
A judge’s 1995 ruling excoriated isolation policies
at California’s Pelican Bay



Fight Over Supermax
A legal battle is raging
over efforts to close Illinois’
Tamms prison.


New Litigation
Lawsuits challenge supermax
prisons in several states.

Cover: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato


CQ Researcher

MANAGING EDITOR: Thomas J. Billitteri





Solitary Confinement Under
Scrutiny Nationwide
Lawsuits and prison officials
are challenging policies.


Tight Quarters and Total
Supermax prisoners are
generally kept in their cells
23 hours a day.


Key events since 1787.


Controversial Study Fuels
Supports Use of Solitary
Inmates claim no ill effects,
but critics cite flaws in the



‘Losing Favor’
Prison experts think use of
strict isolation will continue
to decline.

Sept. 14, 2012
Volume 22, Number 32

Thomas J. Colin
STAFF WRITER: Marcia Clemmitt
Barbara Mantel, Jennifer Weeks
FACT CHECKER: Michelle Harris

An Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.


Michele Sordi


Some States Rethinking
Solitary Confinement
Trend began with inmate
lawsuit over Ohio supermax.
At Issue
Should solitary be limited to
one year?



For More Information
Organizations to contact.


Selected sources used.


The Next Step
Additional articles.


Citing CQ Researcher
Sample bibliography formats.

Todd Baldwin
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Solitary Confinement


But debate centers on
prolonged solitary confinement, or “administrative segrutal aggression. Unregation,” which is used in
bridled rage. Selfso-called “supermax” prisons,
mutilation. Desolation
though long-term solitary conand despair. Descent into
finement also is used in conmadness. Texas prisoner Anventional prisons. Supermaxthony C. Graves saw it all
es are built specifically to
among inmates locked down
house inmates considered exin extreme solitary confinetremely dangerous. The prisment — an ordeal he himoners are locked in individself endured for 18 years
ual cells, usually with solid
while awaiting execution for
steel doors, for 23 hours a
murders he later was exonday. They are fed in their
erated of committing. * 1
cells, through a slot in the
“I would watch guys come
door, and chained and
to prison totally sane and in
guarded when they leave for
three years they don’t live in
any reason. Like Graves, some
the real world anymore,”
prisoners spend a decade or
Graves told a Senate Judilonger in isolation, with even
ciary subcommittee in June.
out-of-cell exercise taken
“I know a guy who would
alone in cage-like settings.
sit in the middle of the floor,
(Supermaxes may also hold
rip his sheet up, wrap it
prisoners who are not kept
around himself and light it
in strict solitary.) 4
on fire. Another guy would
“Increasing the use of highgo out in the recreation yard,
segregation is counAnthony C. Graves is free after 18 years in solitary
get naked, lie down and uriterproductive,
often causing
confinement in Texas for a crime he didn’t commit. “I
would watch guys come to [isolation] totally sane, and
nate all over himself. He
violence inside facilities, conin three years they don’t live in the real world anymore,”
would take his feces and
tributing to recidivism after
Graves told a Senate subcommittee in June. The rise in
smear it all over his face.” 2
release,” Sen. Richard J.
supermax prisons in recent years has sparked questions
Accounts of bizarre and
D-Ill., chairman of the
over whether extended strict isolation is humane and
self-destructive behavior by
effective in keeping order in prisons.
prisoners have multiplied as
Constitution, Civil Rights and
Questions about psychological ef- Human Rights Subcommittee, said in
long-term solitary confinement has become commonplace in the U.S. prison fects are part of a larger debate in opening the June hearing. 5
system over the past two decades. Men- criminal-justice and human-rights cirThe controversy over solitary contal-health experts who have interviewed cles over whether confining anyone finement has gone international. Last
prisoners in solitary disagree on whether for long periods in strict isolation is year, Juan E. Méndez, a former senior
prolonged isolation robs mentally humane and whether isolation is ef- staff member for Human Rights Watch
healthy people of their sanity. But vir- fective in keeping order in prisons who is now the United Nations Human
tually no one doubts that prisoners al- while protecting prison workers, other Rights Commission’s investigator on
ready mentally ill when they enter soli- inmates and the public once prison- mistreatment of prisoners, * concluded
ers are released.
tary tend to deteriorate severely.
that long-term solitary confinement can
Prison officials impose solitary con- amount to torture in some circumstances.
* Graves was convicted as an accomplice in finement in a variety of ways and under He proposes a time limit of 15 days.
the 1992 murders of six members of a a variety of names. The best-known
Somerville, Texas, family. Recanted testimony may be short-term confinement for * Méndez’s full title is special rapporteur on
by the admitted killer, along with prosecuto- rule-breaking — often known as “dis- torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading
rial misconduct, led to his exoneration in 2010. ciplinary segregation.” 3
treatment or punishment.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan


Sept. 14, 2012


Solitary Confinement Under Scrutiny Nationwide
Lawsuits by inmates in a number of states are challenging solitary
confinement practices, while in other states penal authorities are
reviewing policies on prisoner isolation.
Maine — Prison
Colorado — Prisoners
in federal supermax
suing over alleged
long-term solitary
confinement of
mentally ill inmates. . . .
State prison system cuts
population in solitary
and closes
new prison
designed mainly for


Illinois — State
revising system to
send fewer
prisoners to solitary.
. . . Temporary
restraining order
bars closure of state
supermax; prison
guard union
N.D. argues
closure would be

Ohio —
Prison system
to ensure








Arizona —
Inmates suing
state over medical
care and other
issues affecting
general prison
population and
those in Hawaii


Mississippi —
Prison system
director lauds
massive reduction
in long-term
solitary population.

Virtually round-the-clock isolation existed before supermaxes started going
up. But the U.S. controversy over longterm solitary confinement began during
a supermax boom starting in the 1990s.
By the early 2000s, supermaxes in at
least 44 states were estimated to hold
about 25,000 prisoners. Experts believe
that number is now declining because
a series of court decisions — as well
as the higher expenses involved in
running super-secure institutions —
are leading some states to reduce or
end supermax use. 7
In June, Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn,
a Democrat, announced the imminent
closure of his state’s supermax, Tamms
Correctional Institution, though that politically controversial move was delayed

CQ Researcher








Fla.Washington, D.C.

Sources: Various news reports and court documents



Ind. Ohio


California —
Prisoners suing
over inmate
placement in
solitary and
conditions in
isolation units.








system reduces
population in
solitary by nearly
70 percent, to 45
inmates at most,
and slashes time
spent in solitary
to days instead
of months.

— Senate Judiciary
Subcommittee on the
Constitution, Civil
Rights and Human
Rights holds first
major congressional
hearing on long-term
solitary confinement.

by an Illinois state judge in early September. (See “Current Situation,” p. 780.)
And in recent years, following litigation over conditions in long-term
solitary, Mississippi reduced its supermax population by 89 percent, and
Ohio by 85 percent. Maine, which
hadn’t been sued but faces potential
litigation, reduced its long-term solitary population by about 70 percent.
Joseph Ponte, Maine’s corrections
commissioner, said the new policy resulted in “substantial reductions in violence,” reductions in use of force,
chemicals and restraint chairs, and “reductions in inmates cutting [themselves]
up — which was an event that happened every week or at least every
other week.” 8

Supermax supporters describe such
prisons, and their use of strict solitary
confinement, as essential for public safety and management of potentially explosive prison populations. Strict solitary
keeps highly dangerous inmates in conditions in which they’re less able to harm
prison staff or other inmates or induce
other prisoners to commit violent acts.
“It takes someone whose behavior
amounts to a threat and incapacitates
their ability to do such things,” says
Eugene Atherton, a consultant on prison
management who was warden of two
Colorado prisons and assistant director of the Colorado prison system.
“Physically, they can’t put their hands
on other people, and it’s easier to
monitor their communications if they
are about sending directions to other
associates to do harm.”
But like other prison professionals,
Atherton acknowledges that supermaxes in many states have expanded beyond their intended purpose, making
what should be, in his view, a standard
prison-management tool a matter of controversy. “A lot of wardens were locking guys up who were headaches but
manageable under normal circumstances,” he says. “That’s a huge error.”
Some supermax critics agree that a
small number of extremely dangerous
prisoners should be isolated from
other inmates. Federal courts, though
they have placed some restrictions on
long-term solitary confinement, have not
outlawed it.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled
unanimously in 2005 that prison inmates have a constitutional right to
challenge an order transferring them
to a supermax because, the court said,
strict, long-term solitary confinement
isn’t ordinary imprisonment. “Almost
all human contact is prohibited, even
to the point that conversation is not
permitted from cell to cell; his cell’s
light may be dimmed, but is on for
24 hours; and he may exercise only one
hour per day in a small indoor room,”
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the

court. Along with the fact prisoners
were sent to supermax for indefinite
periods, “These conditions impose an
atypical and significant hardship.” 9
Whether supermaxes necessarily
suppress prison violence remains a
matter of debate. In Mississippi, prison
system officials acknowledged that they
had gone overboard in assigning prisoners to the notorious isolation wing
of the state penitentiary at Parchman.
The wing, known as Unit 32, produced more instead of less violence
among prisoners, as well as assaults
on staff. “From May in 2007 to August
2007, three homicides,” the state’s corrections commissioner, Michael Epps,
told Durbin’s subcommittee. “Highly
unusual. One suicide. That’s highly unusual in any prison environment. In
addition to that, inmates was throwing urine and feces on staff.” 10
Though the facility’s purpose was
to prevent exactly those sorts of
events, experts later said that the accumulation of hostility by prisoners —
including seriously mentally ill inmates
— housed there unjustly, along with
security lapses, allowed the violence
to happen. The events persuaded
Epps to begin working with prisonerrights lawyers to massively reduce his
state’s strict isolation population. 11
(See sidebar, p. 778.)
Mississippi aside, hard data don’t exist
on whether supermaxes reduce prison
violence, researchers say. “What states
did was assume that violence stemmed
from what certain inmates were doing
or incited others to do,” says Daniel P.
Mears, a criminology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. That
case is unproven, he says, partly because standards for tracking prison violence are inconsistent. “The leeway
about whether an incident is recordable or not is considerable,” Mears says.
“It might be recorded as simple assault
or aggravated assault,” depending on
the prison or the officer.
Also unclear is the average length
of stay in isolation. While some in-

Tight Quarters and Total Isolation
Long-term solitary confinement differs from prison to prison, but its
common denominators are isolation and maximum security:
• Prisoners are generally kept in their cells for 23 hours a day, let out
only for exercise — taken alone — and showers.
• Cells measure 6 or 7 feet wide by 8 to 10 feet deep. Some have a
barred door that allows a view of immediate surroundings. Others
have a solid steel door with only a small opening for meal delivery.
• Some prisons allow televisions in cells, possibly restricted to
educational or behavioral programming. Rules on reading material,
visits and other diversions vary. At the Florence, Colo., supermax,
prisoners in the highly restricted Special Housing Unit can talk with
family members or other approved visitors by video only and are
escorted to the visiting room in hand and leg restraints, including a
belly chain.
• In federal supermax prisons, prolonged solitary is considered a
disciplinary measure for grave misconduct, such as murdering
another inmate, or for being an “extraordinarily extreme” flight risk.
In California, gang members and suspected members are automatically placed in long-term isolation. In states such as Michigan,
Mississippi and Oklahoma, prisoners considered a threat to staff or
other inmates are locked up in long-term solitary.
Sources: Urban Institute; Journal of Law and Policy; National Institute of Corrections;
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Senate Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, June 19, 2012;
Oklahoma Department of Corrections; Michigan Department of Corrections; United
States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility.

mates are isolated for only days or
weeks, others spend years alone in their
cells. A class-action lawsuit filed this
year by a group of prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay supermax reports
isolation periods of 11 to 25 years. 12
Only a handful of states have gathered figures on time spent in isolation,
as well as other key prison statistics. In
Colorado, prisoners with no mental
health problems spent an average of
19.5 months in isolation according to
2011 data; inmates with mental health
needs spent about 14.1 months. Nationwide, “Basic data as to the functioning
of systems for isolation — the reasons
for admission, the duration of stays, the
prevalence of mental illness and recidivism rates — are unavailable,” two
Yale Law School professors wrote to

the Durbin subcommittee. 13
Still, a wealth of evidence exists on
the effects of long-term solitary on people with mental illnesses. The evidence
has persuaded a number of federal
judges who have ruled in prisoners’
lawsuits against supermax conditions.
“Every federal court to consider the
question has held that ‘supermax’ confinement of the seriously mentally ill
is unconstitutional,” David C. Fathi, executive director of the ACLU National
Prison Project, wrote in 2004. 14
The ACLU prison project is representing inmates at the federal supermax at Florence, Colo., who have suffered from severe mental illness and
spent long periods in the prison’s highsecurity unit. According to the lawsuit,
one of them amputated some of his

Sept. 14, 2012


fingers, a testicle, scrotum and earlobes.
Acts by other prisoner-plaintiffs include: swallowing a razor blade to persuade medical staff to amputate his
right leg, where he suffered a gunshot
wound long ago (he succeeded); amputating a finger, adding it to a bowl
of ramen noodle soup and eating it;
and swallowing broken glass. 15
Federal Bureau of Prison lawyers
haven’t yet responded to the lawsuit.
But episodes of extreme self-harm, as
well as feces-smearing, are common
enough among mentally ill prisoners
in solitary that mental-health professionals have developed explanations.
Jeffrey Metzner, a psychiatry professor at the University of Colorado
medical school in Denver, says selfmutilation seems to be an attempt to
feel something, in a setting in which
outside stimulation is nearly absent.
Feces-smearing is a way of asserting
control by doing something that authorities are unable to stop. “It’s also a
way of expressing significant anger,” says
Metzner, a critic of long-term solitary
confinement of the mentally ill who has
reported on mental-health conditions in
prisons on assignment by federal judges
and court-appointed monitors.
That issue resonates beyond supermax cell walls. Contrary to what
many in the public may think, a large
number of prisoners who have served
lengthy terms in solitary are released
from prison. In a comprehensive study
published in 2006, Mears reported that
Texas alone released an average of
1,400 prisoners a year directly from
strict solitary to the street. 16
“If I were locked down 24-7 for
many years, with little human contact
and little to do,” says Chase Riveland,
former corrections director in Colorado
and Washington state, “I’d probably be
a little bit angry when I got out.”
As judges, penologists, prison officials and human-rights activists debate
the role of solitary confinement in prisons, here are some of the questions
they are asking:


CQ Researcher

Does long-term solitary confinement constitute torture?
Last year’s U.N. report avoided categorically denouncing solitary confinement as torture, but it said solitary
imprisonment that lasts for years, and
that includes severe restrictions on all
human contact, can legitimately be defined that way.
“The longer the duration of solitary
confinement or the greater the uncertainty regarding the length of time, the
greater the risk of serious and irreparable
harm to the inmate that may constitute
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
or punishment or even torture,” wrote
Méndez, the special investigator. 17
Similar concerns led the American
Bar Association to propose in 2010
that “only the most severe disciplinary
cases” should lead to solitary confinement of more than 30 days, with
a limit of one year in all cases. 18
In Wisconsin in 2006, three federal
judges on the Seventh U.S. Court of
Appeals likened long-term solitary confinement to the inhumane world of a
labor camp in the former Soviet Union.
Writing in a decision on a prisoner’s lawsuit, the judges described the
inmate’s harsh existence : “Stripped naked
in a small prison cell with nothing except a toilet; forced to sleep on a concrete floor or slab; denied any human
contact; fed nothing but ‘nutri-loaf;’ and
given just a modicum of toilet paper
— four squares — only a few times.”
The judges, ruling in the prisoner’s
favor, added: “Although this might sound
like a stay at a Soviet gulag in the 1930s,
it is, according to the claims in this
case, Wisconsin in 2002.” The prisoner
was kept naked for his first three days
of isolation, and then for two more
days, for alleged misconduct. 19
Some human-rights advocates insist
on defining long-term solitary, as practiced in the United States, as torture
plain and simple. They have backing
from some physicians, among them
Atul Gawande, a surgeon, professor of
health policy and management at Har-

vard School of Public Health and a
journalist-author. He and other medical professionals point to evidence that
prolonged isolation from human contact does deep and lasting psychological damage.
“In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours
has countenanced legalized torture,”
Gawande wrote in The New Yorker in
2009. “And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use
of solitary confinement — on our own
people, in our own communities.” 20
But prison administrators deny the
torture allegation, arguing that prisoners in solitary are, in fact, in regular
contact with prison staff. “We seek to
ensure that these inmates are not completely isolated as that term may be
typically understood,” Charles E.
Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June. 21
Atherton, the former Colorado warden and state prison official, also rejects the torture label. “What you are
describing is a version of solitary confinement created by prison reform
groups out of California, and Human
Rights Watch, that have chosen isolated confinement as an issue for the
last 20 years,” he says. “They have fabricated every possible mythology of
what confinement means.”
American prisoners in solitary confinement “are not really isolated at all,”
Atherton says. “They communicate with
staff constantly. They have case managers, medical providers talking to them;
that is an American Correctional Association standard.” Atherton spoke
from Afghanistan, where he is a State
Department contractor advising the
Afghan and U.S. governments on the
Afghan prison system.
Prisoner advocates counter that
those communications are cursory at
best, however. “Three times a day, a
guard comes through and slides a food
tray through the slot,” says the ACLU’s

AP Photo/Belleville News-Democrat/George Pawlaczyk

Fathi. “You may occaCohen, who has served
sionally have a mental
as a court-appointed monihealth person come by
tor in litigation over prison
and shout through the
conditions, cites prisoners
crack between the steel
confined in solitary for a
cell door and the door
decade or longer. “One guy
frame; in my experience,
told me, ‘I don’t know who
mental health checks are
I am.’ You’re surrounded by
overwhelmingly conpeople smearing themselves
ducted that way.”
with feces, eating their own
The issue of actual
flesh. I met a guy in Illinois
compliance with poliwho ate his own shoulder.”
cies and standards
aside, “What’s damagIs separating the
ing about solitary con“worst of the worst”
finement is not the abfrom other prisoners
sence of literally all
human contact,” Fathi
The rationale for consays. “What’s damagstructing supermax prisons
ing is the lack of
would seem clear and
meaningful human instraightforward. As some
teraction. A prisoner
prison officials and politican go weeks, months
cians pose the issue, ceror years without meantain prisoners are so daningful human interacgerous to other inmates and
tion.” As with physical
to staff that there is no way
torture, he says, the efto house them in general
fects can damage a
prison populations.
prisoner for life.
As examples, prison proRiveland, the former
fessionals often cite gang
corrections boss in Colleaders who order murders
orado and Washington
and gang members who
state and now a conare sworn to carry out those
sultant on prison issues,
orders. “Perhaps the most
argues that it’s a missuccessful gang-control
take to apply the “torstrategy, from a viewpoint
Former inmate Chris Marcum shows scars from cutting himself
while in isolation at the Tamms supermax prison in Illinois.
ture” label across the
of reducing violence and
Several states recently have reduced their supermax populations
board. “I’m sure there
disorder, has been the isofollowing litigation over conditions in long-term solitary. In
are instances where
lation of gang members,
Maine, a prison official said the state’s new policy reduced
some people have
it more difficult for
violence and instances of inmates cutting themselves. Jeffrey
undergone treatment
influence and prey
Metzner, a psychiatry professor at the University of Colorado
medical school, says self-mutilation seems to be an attempt to feel
that you would label
on the general prison popsomething in a setting where outside stimulation is nearly absent.
torture,” he says. But
ulation,” three Texas unimisclassification of prisversity criminologists wrote
oners is a more widespread problem, not given to hyperbole,” says Fred in the American Correctional AssociaRiveland says — “widening the net too Cohen, co-editor of the penology trade tion’s monthly magazine in 2006. 22
Nevertheless, the strategy has drawmuch on who stays in solitary and journal Correctional Law Reporter and
how long, without a serious profes- editor of Correctional Mental Health backs, wrote Chad R. Trulson and Sosional review on, ‘Can we get this per- Report, “but I see things so bad that raya K. Kawucha of the University of
it’s not too much to say that it’s whole- North Texas and James W. Marquart
son into some other setting?’ ”
Others argue for keeping the focus sale torture being practiced, in some of the University of Texas at Dallas.
A missing gang member can be
on conditions they call inhumane. “I’m states more than others.”

Sept. 14, 2012


replaced, they noted. And there may
be better ways to deal with “peripheral or inactive” gang members, the
scholars said: Encourage them to renounce their affiliation, transfer them
out of state or enroll them in behaviorchange programs. 23
But academics may not make the
best guides to the realities of prison
administration, argues Gary W. DeLand,
former director of the Utah corrections
department. “If you have actual knowledge of a serious threat to safety, order
or to an individual, and you fail to
take action, you are liable,” he says,
citing a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that federal prison officials had acted with “deliberate indifference” in failing to protect a
transsexual prisoner from rape. 24
“What happens if you know you’ve
got a heavy risk, if you know you
have people who are dangerous to
staff and to other prisoners?,” DeLand
asks rhetorically. “What do you do
with them? Put them in suspended animation?” Segregation and isolation is
the only practical solution, he argues.
Yet, Florida State’s Mears, who has
written a series of detailed studies of
supermax confinement — including
an evaluation of results — argues that
the case for segregating the “worst of
the worst” is less definitive than it appears. 25 “I did phone interviews and
state-by-state visits and I’d hear, ‘It’s
worst-of-the-worst control,’ ” Mears says.
“So my response [was], ‘What outcomes
would you use to show you’re controlling the worst of the worst?’ ”
Supermax prisoners can still assault
guards, Mears notes, citing so-called
“cell extraction” operations after an inmate breaks rules in some way. “They’re
also not incapacitated from ordering assaults,” he says, noting that prisoners
can send out mail and may be able to
receive visits, even if they are not faceto-face. A “savvy leader” can use those
occasions to send out directives, Mears
notes. And Mississippi’s experience at
Unit 32 in 2007, when three prisoners


CQ Researcher

died during an outbreak of violence
between gangs, shows that prisoners
can cause violence even when confined in solitary. 26
Still, some prison officials say segregating dangerous prisoners in supermax-type settings has improved safety for staff and other prisoners in
standard prison housing. In Illinois,
following the 1998 opening of the
Tamms Correctional Center supermax,
“Incidents of inmate-on-inmate assaults,
inmate-on-staff assaults, gang-related
activities, the number of lockdown days
. . . have all gone down,” Michael Randle, then the director of the Illinois
corrections department, said during December 2009 testimony in a prisoner
lawsuit over conditions at Tamms. 27
Charles E. Samuels Jr., Federal Bureau of Prisons director, echoed Randle’s safety argument last June. “If you
have individuals who have the
propensity to harm others and in
many cases who have killed other individuals,” he told the Constitution, Civil
Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee, “these are individuals who have
proven that they’re going to require a
restrictive form of confinement until
. . . we are comfortable to ensure the
safety of the facility putting them back
into general population.” 28
Prisoner advocates don’t entirely
condemn the idea of separating extremely dangerous prisoners. But these
inmates don’t account for most of
those in supermax-type units, critics
of solitary argue. “People who end up
in solitary, most of them, are not the
worst of the worst, they’re the sickest
of the sick,” says Fathi of the ACLU.
The result is that the supermax effect on the overall safety of prison systems is minimal, Fathi argues. “In every
system you can find a handful of prisoners who are truly dangerous and
require physical separation from others,” he says. Despite their small numbers, “They are the only justification
for building these cruel and extraordinarily expensive facilities.”

Does long-term solitary confinement make normal prisoners
mentally ill?
Many prison professionals say longterm solitary confinement is no place for
mentally ill prisoners — but that they
often end up there anyway. “Every classaction case I’ve ever worked on, they’re
over-represented in segregation,” says
Steve J. Martin of Austin, Texas, a lawyer
and ex-prison officer with long experience as a court-appointed prison monitor. “And they’re over-represented in
terms of use of force and disciplinary
infractions. Those things are all linked.
If you engage in the type of behavior
that requires staff use of force, that typically leads to long-term segregation.”
Moreover, Martin says, the controversy over long-term solitary grows
out of the increased use of supermaxtype confinement for mentally ill prisoners. “American prisons have always
held a certain number of prisoners in
22- to 23-hour-a-day lockup,” he says.
But the widespread use of it for mentally ill prisoners is relatively recent.
A string of court decisions and settlement orders has barred about a halfdozen prison systems from sending
mentally ill inmates to long-term solitary. These started with a 1995 federal court order to remove mentally ill
inmates from the Security Housing
Unit of California’s Pelican Bay supermax. (See “Background,” p. 777.)
More recently, U.S. District Judge G.
Patrick Murphy of East St. Louis, Ill.,
went further, concluding that supermax confinement could psychologically damage any prisoner. Murphy
said in a 2010 ruling concerning Tamms
Correctional Center that “a number of
inmates who testified to experiencing
severe depression and other disturbances while confined at Tamms testified also to significant improvement
in their mental health after being transferred to the less restrictive conditions”
at another state prison. 29
Murphy wrote that prisoners were
entitled to hearings before being sent

to Tamms. Conditions there “inflict
lasting psychological and emotional
harm on inmates confined there for
long periods,” he wrote. 30
The issue is on some politicians’
minds as well. “Some [inmates] are already seriously mentally ill before they’re
confined” in isolation, Durbin said at
the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in June. “Others who may not have
had any psychological problems before
isolation can be driven into a psychosis
or a suicidal state.” 31
Durbin was echoing the conclusions
of one of the subcommittee’s witnesses,
Craig Haney, a psychology professor
at the University of California, Santa
Cruz, and a veteran researcher on the
effects of long-term supermax-type confinement. Extreme cases of self-mutilation aside, Haney testified, “Solitary
confinement places all prisoners exposed to it at grave risk of harm.” 32
All prisoners in solitary, Haney
said, may find “this environment . . .
so painful, so bizarre and impossible
to make sense of, that they create
their own reality.” In addition, “The
deprivations, restrictions, the totality
of control, and the prolonged absence
of any real opportunity for happiness
or joy fills many prisoners with intolerable levels of frustration that, for
some, turns to anger, and then even
to uncontrollable and sudden outbursts
of rage.” 33
Nevertheless, some supermax defenders dispute the idea that longterm solitary confinement can do lasting mental health damage to a
psychologically fit prisoner. “I’ve seen
nothing, and I’ve been in this business now for about four decades,”
says DeLand. “I’ve yet to run into anything that one could solidly point to
as a person without serious emotional
problems being affected in a negative
way by being isolated.”
During his stint as Utah corrections
director, DeLand says, systematic audits he ordered to spot problems that
could lead to lawsuits never picked

up evidence of solitary confinement
driving prisoners into mental illness. “I
am not familiar with any study that’s
been done that would indicate that
being locked in isolation for some period of time is going to cause mental
health problems.”
Cohen of Correctional Mental
Health Report says he is not aware
of any studies that objectively assess
the mental health of people before
and after solitary confinement. But,
he adds, “In the last 25 years, I’ve
been to probably 100 prisons. I have
seen guys that I have known before
they went in [to solitary] who became
hopelessly mad.”
Some prisoners could be faking insanity, Cohen acknowledges. But he
says that would be hard to imagine
“for guys who come in from the street
as dudes, who are fastidious, who
smear themselves with feces.”
But Metzner of the University of
Colorado, who also has a long track
record in prison work and opposes
solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates, argues that prolonged isolation
doesn’t induce mental illness, except
in unusual cases.
Long-term solitary can make anyone
depressed, Metzner says. And “that can
be harmful even without mental illness.
But it’s uncommon for people to become psychotic if they’re in segregation, absent existing mental illness.”

Repentance in Isolation
ong-term solitary confinement as
a penal strategy dates back to the
formation of American prisons.
In 1787, the Pennsylvania legislature ordered that a wing of a jail on
Walnut Street in Philadelphia be converted to a “penitentiary house,” where


convicts would be held in isolation for
the length of their sentences. Lawmakers believed that without the distraction of cellmates, prisoners could
reflect on their errors and repent for
them — hence the term “penitentiary,”
which eventually passed into common
usage as a synonym for prison. 34
In 1821, New York state adopted
the isolation strategy for a recently
built prison at Auburn, about 35 miles
west of Syracuse. Eighty convicts considered in special need of repentance
were locked in dark isolation cells
with only a Bible for company.
Whatever progress the prisoners
made in repairing their souls, their bodies suffered. By early 1823, five had
died of consumption, as tuberculosis
was then known, and 41 were gravely ill. Others lost their minds.
Auburn shifted to a system in which
prisoners were allowed out of their
cells to work, though they weren’t allowed to talk to each other. “Industry,
obedience, silence” was the institution’s
Elsewhere, the idea of redemption
through isolation still appealed to state
officials. When Pennsylvania built Eastern Penitentiary outside Philadelphia
in 1829, the idea was to keep all prisoners — not a select group — in total,
permanent isolation.
Isolation at Eastern was so complete that prisoners were brought in
with black hoods over their heads, so
that they’d be unable to see even the
prison grounds. The prisoners never
left their cells, until death or end of
Unlike modern solitary, prisoners
were required to work. Looms or workbenches were part of cell furniture.
Still, a prisoner’s separation from other
people was all but total. Food was
passed through a slot designed so that
even glimpsing the guard delivering
the tray was impossible. The only exceptions were occasional visitors —
not family or friends, but officials and
a few foreign researchers.

Sept. 14, 2012


Among those researchers were the
French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville
and his friend, Gustave de Beaumont.
They visited Eastern in 1831 during an
American tour that produced Tocqueville’s
classic two-volume Democracy in
America (1835, 1840). Tocqueville
seemed impressed by what he saw.
One prisoner told him and Beaumont,
sincerely or not, that he considered
“being brought to the Penitentiary as
a signal benefit of Providence.” 35
Another prisoner sobbed incessantly,
Tocqueville reported. The man said he
hoped he would be accepted back
into society upon release.
For their part, the prison’s official
inspectors defended solitary as redemptive. “The sense of shame and
feelings of remorse drives them to some
source of consolation,” they wrote, “and
the ordinary means of stifling an actively reproving conscience being denied by reason of their solitariness, the
comforts of the Bible and the peace
of religion are eagerly sought for.” 36
The British novelist Charles Dickens, who spent a day at Eastern in
1842, took away a different impression. He concluded, “This slow and
daily tampering with the mysteries of
the brain [is] immeasurably worse than
any torture of the body . . . because
its ghastly signs and tokens are not
so palpable to the eye and sense of
touch as scars upon the flesh.” 37

Supreme Displeasure
n September 1889, a Colorado jury
convicted James J. Medley of murdering his wife the previous May. He
was sentenced to hang. 38
The sentence, handed down in November of that year, included a provision called for by a newly enacted law:
Medley was to be held in solitary confinement until his execution. 39
Colorado’s new homicide law had
been enacted in April 1889. But under
the Colorado constitution, laws took



CQ Researcher

effect 90 days after passage. Thus, the
crime had been committed when the
previous homicide law was in effect
— a law that didn’t require solitary
confinement for prisoners awaiting execution.
Medley’s lawyer filed a habeas corpus petition seeking the prisoner’s release. It reached the U.S. Supreme
Court in 1890. The high court decided in Medley’s favor, ruling that the
convicted man’s sentencing violated
the constitutional prohibition on “expost-facto” laws, which apply a new
statute to an offense committed when
a previous law was in effect.
The court cited a history of “serious objections” to solitary confinement. In Pennsylvania and other states
that followed its example, “A considerable number of the prisoners fell,
after even a short confinement, into a
semi-fatuous condition, from which it
was next to impossible to arouse them,”
the court said, “and others became violently insane; other still committed
suicide while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed.” 40
The court also called solitary confinement “an additional punishment
of the most important and painful
character [that is] therefore forbidden”
under the Constitution’s ex-post-facto
provision. 41 Moreover, because the
homicide law in force when Medley
committed his crime was no longer in
effect, the Supreme Court reasoned
that it could not simply send him back
for a new trial. “James J. Medley is entitled to have his liberty.”
Accordingly, the court ordered him
freed from prison.
To this day, solitary confinement critics quote Medley’s passage about the
effects of solitary confinement. Most recently, Hope Metcalf, director of Yale
Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Program, and Judith Resnik, a
Yale law professor, cited the description in testimony to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in June. 42

Nevertheless, Cohen, the Correctional Law Reporter co-editor, noted
that the high court didn’t reject solitary confinement as inherently unconstitutional. “It was merely found to
be sufficiently harsh to be an ex-postfacto (that is, not then authorized)
punishment,” Cohen wrote. 43
He further argued that Medley suffers from a built-in weakness. “The majority’s reliance on the much older
Philadelphia system of silence and the
mental suffering it caused seems quite
misplaced where a death sentenced inmate was to be kept in mandatory solitary for about four weeks, with guaranteed access by various visitors, and
with no mention whatsoever of the particular conditions of confinement.” 44

Institutionalizing Solitary
he country’s first prison for the
hardest of hard-core criminals was
a federal prison opened on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1934. Its
inmates included the Prohibition-era
gangster Al Capone and other notorious criminals, as well as prisoners known
for escape or for assaulting fellow inmates or officers. Alcatraz is “commonly
recognized as the forerunner of today’s
supermax facilities,” wrote Riveland, the
former Washington state corrections
director, in a 1999 guide to supermax
administration. 45
Even so, Alcatraz prisoners were
housed one to a cell but weren’t confined nearly full-time to those cells, as
are many supermax prisoners in today’s
institutions. Round-the-clock solitary
confinement was used as punishment
— limited to 14 days, with an interval
of 14 days required before officials could
impose it again. 46
The U.S. government closed Alcatraz
in 1963 because it was nearly three
times more expensive to run than any
other federal prison, due to its island
location. 47


Continued on p. 776

Round-the-clock isolation of
prisoners begins in Pennsylvania and New York in the belief
that enforced solitude encourages repentance.
Pennsylvania turns a wing of a
Philadelphia jail into a “penitentiary house,” where prisoners are
kept in their cells.
New York imposes isolation regime
at a new state prison in Auburn.
Eastern Penitentiary, designed to
completely isolate prisoners, opens
outside Philadelphia.
British novelist Charles Dickens
visits Eastern and reports that
long-term solitary confinement was
“immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”


Supreme Court expresses skepticism about solitary confinement but doesn’t reject it.
High court frees a Colorado man
sentenced to hang for his wife’s
murder, saying he’d been punished
with solitary confinement under a
law that shouldn’t have been applied to him.
Federal government opens prison
for hard-core prisoners on Alcatraz
Island in San Francisco Bay, considered the predecessor of supermax prisons.

After Alcatraz is closed as too expensive, the government opens a
replacement in Marion, Ill.

Supermax era begins as prisons
are built to hold the “worst of
the worst” in strict solitary confinement; prisoner-rights lawyers
begin challenging the strategy.
Prisoners kill two guards at the
federal prison at Marion, prompting a lockdown of all prisoners.
California opens Pelican Bay
prison with Security Housing Unit
(SHU) designed to hold prisoners
in their cells for 23 hours a day.
Federal judge in San Francisco prohibits confinement of mentally ill
prisoners at the SHU and concludes
that conditions were close to intolerable even for the mentally healthy.
Illinois opens Tamms Correctional
Center, which became a target of
prisoners’ litigation and a center of
political controversy.

Prisoner lawsuits, combined
with tightened finances for
states, increase pressures to restrict supermax confinement.
Supermax prisoners in Ohio, Mississippi and Wisconsin sue over
their conditions of confinement.

Nationwide, 44 state supermaxes
hold an estimated 25,000 prisoners.
U.S. Supreme Court rules in Ohio
lawsuit that prisoners have a right
to challenge orders transferring
them to supermax and to qualify
for release from solitary.
U.S. Appeals Court ruling on Wisconsin suit likens supermax conditions to those in the Soviet gulag
in the 1930s.
Violence in Mississippi’s supermax
prompts state immediately to lay
groundwork for reducing supermax population.
Ruling on a lawsuit by Illinois supermax prisoners, federal judge
writes that conditions at the prison
cause lasting psychological damage. . . . American Bar Association
proposes one-year limit on strict
solitary confinement.
U.N. investigator says long-term
solitary confinement can amount
to torture, proposes 15-day limit.
Prisoner-rights lawyers file lawsuits
alleging inhumane conditions at
federal supermax in Florence,
Colo., and state supermaxes in
California and Arizona. . . . Senate
subcommittee holds hearing on
long-term solitary confinement. . . .
Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn orders
Tamms supermax closed. Prison
guards’ union says decision threatens safety at prisons to which
Tamms inmates are to be transferred. . . . Illinois state judge
temporarily blocks Tamms closing.

Sept. 14, 2012



Controversial Study Supports Use of Solitary
Inmates claim no ill effects, but critics cite flaws in research.
ntil recently, supporters of long-term solitary confinement had little academic research to back up what
their experience told them: that placing inmates in isolation for long periods — is an indispensable tool in running
a prison system.
Now, a controversial study based on research among Colorado prisoners is filling the gap — at least as far as advocates of solitary confinement are concerned.
The results, published in 2010 by the Justice Department’s
National Institute of Justice, are based on psychological tests
administered to about 250 Colorado prisoners — some mentally ill — in both solitary and in the prison system’s general
population. The average length of a stay in solitary in Colorado
is two years, but the study doesn’t say how long each study
participant in solitary had spent there. The tests included prisoners’ self-assessments of their own psychological condition. 1
A report on the study, co-written by Maureen L. O’Keefe,
research director for the Colorado Department of Corrections,
concluded that “there was initial improvement in psychological
well-being across all study groups.” What’s more, it said “elevations in psychological and cognitive functioning that were
evident at the start of the study remained present at the end
of the study.” 2
The report noted that researchers had not expected these
results and that the study’s conclusions contradicted “the bulk
of literature” indicating that solitary confinement “is extremely
detrimental to inmates with and without mental illness.” 3
“People who rail against isolated confinement were very disappointed in the outcome of the report,” says Eugene Atherton, a Pueblo, Colo.-based prison management consultant and
former Colorado warden. “The research showed the opposite
of what they had hoped would be proved.” Atherton, now
working for the State Department to advise the Afghan gov-


Continued from p. 774

Its replacement was the federal prison
at Marion, Ill., which opened in 1964.
There, the only prisoners initially kept
in their cells 23 hours a day were those
locked in the prison’s “control unit,”
which was reserved for 35 inmates considered especially dangerous. 48
In October 1983, during a period
of rising tension, two control unit prisoners killed two guards in a 10-hour
span. Each prisoner was being escorted
to his cell when he turned on a guard
and stabbed him to death. Rules then
in effect didn’t require control-unit


CQ Researcher

ernment on development of a prison system, spoke from Kabul.
Advocates of solitary confinement have used the study to
support their view that isolating prisoners for long periods —
usually known in the field as “administrative segregation” or
“ad seg” — is a legitimate form of punishment and necessary
for maintaining control of inmate populations.
Last June, Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee that the
study found that “no negative effect on individuals in restrictive housing has occurred.” 4
But opponents of solitary confinement argue that the study
is flawed and should not be used to shape prison policy.
O’Keefe and study adviser Jeffrey L. Metzner, a University
of Colorado psychiatry professor and longtime expert on mental health in prison, acknowledged that the report shouldn’t be
taken as conclusive evidence that applies to all long-term solitary nationwide. “This study may not generalize to other prison
systems, especially those that have conditions of confinement
more restrictive and/or harsher than CSP [Colorado State Penitentiary],” they wrote last year in a professional journal, Correctional Mental Health Report. 5
Writing separately, Metzner said, “Such results should not be
interpreted to indicate that there is little harm associated with
housing inmates with mental illness on a long-term basis in”
solitary confinement. Metzner served as an adviser on the study.
Others included Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser to the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that is critical
of long-term solitary confinement. 6
Despite the caveats, the report has generated a furious response from corrections experts, who have concluded that isolation damages prisoners who were either mentally ill to start
with or mentally healthy when their isolation began.

prisoners to be handcuffed when outside their cells. 49
After the killings, the federal Bureau
of Prisons put Marion on permanent
“lockdown.” When an inmate was let
out of his cell, he was chained, handcuffed and escorted by three guards.
Visitors saw inmates only through a
Plexiglas window and spoke to them
over a telephone. Work programs ceased.
(Today, Marion is a medium-security
prison, without permanent solitary.) 50
The killings prompted a call to reestablish a federal death penalty,
which the U.S. Supreme Court had re-

jected in 1972. “Locking some men up
will not stop them from injuring others,” Bureau of Prisons Director Norman Carlson said shortly after the homicides. “They use virtually anything to
make deadly weapons, and they
spend their days plotting murder. We
can keep them in their cells for 23
hours a day, but we can’t weld the
bars shut. For these few, the death
penalty is the only answer.” 51
Congress passed a new federal capital punishment law in 1988 and expanded its application in 1994. Among
politicians, the debate over that move

Stuart Grassian and Terry Kupers, psychiatrists with long
professional track records in correctional mental health, argued,
for example, that relying on prisoners to assess their own psychological conditions constitutes a fundamental flaw of the
study. The testing materials the researchers used weren’t designed specifically for prison inmates, Grassian and Kupers
wrote. Prisoners in the study sample were told that the purpose was to research adjustment to prison life.
“Anyone with a background in corrections knows that is not
the kind of information an inmate would likely expose,” Grassian
and Kupers wrote. “It could harm him, even surreptitiously, for example at a parole hearing or in hearings to determine whether he
could progress to higher levels in [administrative segregation].” 7
Grassian, a retired Harvard Medical School professor, and
Kupers, a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., a
postgraduate clinical psychology school, also wrote that the
study failed to evaluate test results in light of prison mentalhealth records. These would have provided data, they wrote,
against which to assess the test results. 8
The study’s critics may have feared that it would be used
to justify maintaining or even expanding the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. But that has not been the result,
at least in Colorado. After the report was issued, the legislature last year ordered the state corrections department to report annually on progress in removing mentally ill or developmentally disabled prisoners from solitary confinement. The
bill imposing the requirement was prompted by an increase in
the number of mentally ill prisoners placed in solitary. 9
But changes in the prison system went deeper. Administrators have been sending fewer prisoners of any kind to solitary
confinement. Along with a general decrease in the prison population, partly resulting from lowered penalties for some drug
crimes, the decline in the solitary population led this year to

overshadowed, for a time, arguments
about the wisdom, cost and ethics of
confining prisoners in solitary for periods of years. 52
In fact, the Marion lockdown became the template for supermax prisons nationwide. At the federal level,
the administrative maximum (ADX)
prison in Florence, Colo., which opened
in 1994, was built to enable a regime
of permanent lockdown. By then, too,
the Marion model had started spreading to state prison systems.
The best-known state supermax, the
Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Peli-

closure of the brand-new Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon
City. It had been used mainly for strict solitary confinement of
the long-term type, with virtually round-the-clock isolation and
limited human contact. 10
The $162 million prison, opened in 2010 with room for 948
administrative-segregation prisoners, has housed only 316 inmates since it opened. 11
Atherton acknowledges the report hasn’t settled the issue. “On
goes this battle,” he says, “with those who know little or nothing about correctional institutions and criminal behavior who are
applying their own suburban standards to prisons.”
— Peter Katel
1 Maureen L. O’Keefe, “One Year Longitudinal Study of the Psychological
Effects of Administrative Segregation,” Colorado Department of Corrections,
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Oct. 31, 2010, pp. v-vi, 11,
2 Ibid., p. ii.
3 Ibid.
4 “Sen. Richard J. Durbin Holds a Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement,” CQ Transcriptions, June 19, 2012.
5 Jeffrey L. Metzner and Maureen L. O’Keefe, “Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation: The Colorado Study,” Correctional Mental Health
Report, May/June, 2011, p. 1,
6 Ibid., p. 14 and “Acknowledgements” page.
7 Stuart Grassian and Terry Kupers, “The Colorado Study vs. the Reality of
Supermax Confinement,” Correctional Mental Health Report, op. cit., p. 9.
8 Ibid., p. 10.
9 “DOC gets report on solitary confinement review,” The Associated Press,
Nov. 18, 2011.
10 Kristen Wyatt, “Colorado closing Canon City prison,” The Associated Press,
March 19, 2012.
11 Tracy Harmon, “Reduced crime means less need for state prisons,” Pueblo
Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.), March 21, 2012; Tracy Harmon, “$162 million
prison opens,” Pueblo Chieftain, Aug. 26, 2010.

can Bay State Prison in California,
opened in 1989. SHU prisoners were
locked in their cells for all but about
one hour a day. Massachusetts followed suit in 1991, with a supermax
on the grounds of the state prison at
Walpole, where prisoners were locked
in cells for 22 hours a day. “This unit
sends a message to both existing inmates and potential criminals that disruptive behavior is not going to be
tolerated in the Massachusetts prison
system,” Gov. William Weld said. 53
By 1998, about 20,000 prisoners
were housed under supermax condi-

tions in 34 states — either in newly
built institutions or in existing prisons
or prison wings retrofitted as supermaxes. 54
Virtually as soon as the wave of
supermax construction began, some
corrections professionals began questioning whether the facilities were
needed, at least on such a broad
scale. “Fad, trend or wise investment?,”
Riveland, the former Washington
state prison system director, asked in
a 1999 report published by the Justice Department’s National Institute
of Corrections. 55

Sept. 14, 2012



Some States Rethinking Solitary Confinement
Trend began with inmate lawsuit over Ohio supermax prison.
he prison world has a new buzzword: “reclassification.”
High costs, litigation and controversy involving long-term
solitary confinement are prompting politicians and prison
officials to question whether prisoner isolation has been overused.
As a result, some states are revamping their security classifications under which certain prisoners are segregated in roundthe-clock lockdown.
The reclassification trend, so far limited to a few states, got
its first major impetus from Ohio’s decision in the early 2000s
to drastically reduce its population housed in long-term solitary with little human contact in the state’s supermax prison,
the Ohio State Penitentiary. At the time, the state was embroiled
in a lawsuit by prisoners challenging their transfer to the supermax. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld prisoners’
right to challenge such transfers. 1
But by the time the court ruled, Ohio already had changed
its classification system. By 2008, only 53 of 533 prisoners who
had been in supermax in the early 2000s remained there. The
others had been reclassified to lower security levels, a move
that took them out of solitary. 2
The most dramatic shift in state policy came in Mississippi
in 2007. Prompting the change was an increase in violence in
the notorious isolation wing of the state penitentiary at Parchman — Unit 32, which held only prisoners in round-the-clock
solitary — made possible by a breakdown in isolation security procedures. 3
At the time, the Mississippi prison system was being sued
by prisoners represented by the National Prison Project of the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The lawsuit had already
led to talks between prison system officials and lawyers for inmates on changing the classification system. Following the violence, officials quickly accepted changes in the system proposed by the ACLU’s classification expert, James Austin (who
had also worked on the Ohio revamping). A few months later,


Riveland didn’t answer the question
directly. But he wrote that supermaxes were significantly more expensive
to build and operate, their conditions
raised ethical and constitutional issues
of inhumane treatment and effects on
staff as well as prisoners could be
negative. “When there is little interaction except in control situations,”
Riveland wrote, “the adversarial nature of the relationships tends to be
one of dominance and, in return, resistance on both sides.” 56


CQ Researcher

about three-quarters of Unit 32 prisoners had been reclassified
for transfer to the prison’s general population. 4
Austin had concluded that under the old classification system, some prisoners were sent to Unit 32 immediately after
they began their sentences, without having broken any rules.
Many prisoners remained in the unit for years though they had
not committed any misconduct there and should have been eligible for transfer. “Required reassessments were not being done
. . . [and] the caseload for case managers was so large that
they could not have adequate contact with prisoners,” said a
study by experts including Austin, other ACLU staff members
and Mississippi prison officials. 5
As prisoners were reclassified, the population of Unit 32
plummeted from about 1,000 to fewer than 150. 6
The Ohio and Mississippi reclassifications are now being
used as a template for other states. The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based criminal justice system think tank and
advocacy organization, is working with Illinois, Maryland and
New Mexico on revamping their classification systems. 7
The projects are designed to develop new standards for releasing prisoners from segregation, strengthening programs by
which prisoners can move out of solitary confinement and improving conditions in solitary. “Vera aims to demonstrate that
states can reduce the numbers of prisoners they hold in segregation without jeopardizing institutional or public safety,”
Michael Jacobson, Vera’s president, told the Senate Judiciary
Committee’s Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee last June. The organization also hopes to create a
“replicable model” that other states can use. 8
Work on the project so far shows that many prisoners are
sent to solitary for minor rule-breaking, three Vera Institute reclassification specialists wrote last year. These offenses include
“unauthorized movement, failure to report to work or school,
insolence or talking back and disobeying a direct order,” the

Constitutional Issues
s supermaxes proliferated, prisoner advocates and human-rights
activists began a campaign to limit
their use, or abolish them altogether.
The first major lawsuit over supermax conditions was a 1993 federal
case that combined more than 300 individual suits by inmates at California’s
Pelican Bay prison. A trial featured harrowing testimony from prison experts
about systematic brutality and mis-


treatment of inmates throughout the
prison and in its SHU supermax wing
— testimony cited in detail in a 345page ruling by U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson in 1995. 57
Henderson ruled that prison system
officials “cross the constitutional line when
they force certain subgroups of the prison
population, including the mentally ill, to
endure the conditions in the SHU, despite knowing that the likely consequence
for such inmates is serious injury to their
mental health.” Another subgroup, Henderson ruled, was made up of inmates

experts wrote. “Confinement to segregation is often out of scale
for these violations.” 9
The Illinois corrections department reported that Vera’s analysis showed that 85 percent of prisoners were in long-term, limited-human-contact solitary for “less severe” infractions. “It was
also found that those who spent less time in segregation were
not more likely to commit new violations during the first 12
months of release into general prison population,” the department reported in comments that Jacobson relayed to the Senate subcommittee. 10
Overall, Illinois officials reported, “The mantra of the program has been to determine if we are mad at the offender or
scared of them when making recommendations for segregation
time and transfer.” 11
In Mississippi, meanwhile, reclassification has improved
conditions in the prison system, according to a top official.
“When we started moving people to lower security levels, we
found that there was no increase in violence,” Deputy Corrections Commissioner Emmitt Sparkman wrote on the Vera
Institute’s blog. “We’ve been conditioned that 23-hour lockdowns make it safer, make it better for staff and other offenders and for the system. In Mississippi, we’ve found that’s
not necessarily true.” 12
The Ohio story has been more complicated. The most recent
prison system director, Gary Mohr, said that when he took over
last year he found dangerously high levels of violence. In response, he announced a new classification system early this year
that would house an estimated 300 to 500 gang members and
other dangerous prisoners in “control” units or special prisons. 13
Those units include cells for virtually round-the-clock solitary confinement. But officials made a point of stressing differences between their system and previous versions of longterm solitary confinement. They said “control” prisoners would
be able to earn a way into less restrictive conditions and

with mental conditions — chronic depression and brain damage effects, among
them — who would severely deteriorate in solitary. In December 1995, Henderson followed up by ordering the removal of 100 severely mentally ill prisoners
from the SHU by year’s end. 58
Nevertheless, Henderson explicitly
refrained from concluding that conditions in the SHU were unconstitutional
across the board. They “may well hover
on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience,
particularly when endured for extend-

would be enrolled in behavioral programs. “Control prisons
are not designed as disciplinary centers,” the department said
in its annual report for last year. “Offenders in control units
will still have access to programming designed to change their
way of thinking.” 14
— Peter Katel
1 Wilkinson v. Austin, 544 U.S. 74 (2005),
2 “Examples of supermax prisons whose purposes have changed,” The Associated Press, April 5, 2008.
3 Terry A. Kupers, et al., “Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation,”
Criminal Justice and Behavior, July 21, 2009, p. 4,
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 5.
6 Ibid., p. 5.
7 “Segregation Reduction Project,” Vera Institute of Justice, undated, www.
8 Michael Jacobson, written testimony, Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, June 19,
9 Angela Browne, Alissa Cambier and Suzanne Agha, “Prisons Within Prisons: The use of Segregation in the United States,” Federal Sentencing Reporter, October 2011, p. 29,
10 Jacobson, op. cit.
11 Ibid.
12 Emmitt Sparkman, “Mississippi DOC’s Emmitt Sparkman on reducing the
use of segregation in prisons,” Current Thinking (blog), Vera Institute of
Justice, Oct. 31, 2011,
13 “Prisoners with gang links to be isolated,” Dayton Daily News (Ohio),
Feb. 15, 2012 p. A1; “Annual Report, 2011,” Ohio Department of Rehabilitation
and Correction, undated,
14 Ibid., “Annual Report,” p. 4.

ed periods of time,” Henderson wrote.
“They do not, however, violate exacting Eighth Amendment standards.” 59
The amendment, which prohibits “cruel
and unusual punishments,” is central
to analyzing the constitutionality of
prison conditions. 60
The Pelican Bay ruling led to a
series of federal lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on
behalf of prisoners confined in solitary in Wisconsin, Ohio, Connecticut,
New Mexico and Indiana. (The New
Mexico case began in state court.) By

2007, those suits led to settlements
or court orders prohibiting confinement of seriously mentally ill prisoners in supermax facilities. 61
When another supermax lawsuit
reached the U.S. Supreme Court in
2005, the justices also refrained from
defining long-term solitary as unconstitutional. But the decision did uphold prisoners’ arguments that they’d
been denied due process when they
were sent to the Ohio supermax.
Likewise, once in solitary, the court
said, prisoners had a constitutional

Sept. 14, 2012


right to periodic review of their cases,
with the possibility of earning transfer out of solitary. 62
Following the high court action, prisoners argued in a lower federal court
that the prison system wasn’t actually
carrying out the due-process proceedings, despite what officials had
told the Supreme Court. In 2007, a
federal district judge ruled that Ohio
was still denying prisoners an effective procedure to win release from the
supermax. 63
Meanwhile, opposition to long-term
solitary confinement was intensifying
in the domestic and international humanrights community. The ACLU, in addition to litigating for years over conditions for prisoners in prolonged solitary
confinement, launched a campaign to
“stop solitary.” Among the reasons was
solitary’s effect on mental health,
among both mentally ill prisoners and
those who’d been mentally stable before being locked in prolonged isolation. Argued the ACLU, “The clinical
impacts of isolation can actually be similar to that of physical torture.” 64

Fight Over Supermax
n early September, Associate Circuit
Judge Charles Cavaness of Alexander
County, Ill. (Cairo), issued a temporary restraining order halting Gov.
Quinn’s planned closure of the Tamms
supermax. The action had the potential to make “the prisons that remain
more dangerous for employees,” the
judge said. 65
That conclusion echoed arguments
by union prison guards and other staff,
who have been fighting Democrat
Quinn’s plan to close Tamms, a con-



CQ Researcher

ventional prison for women and some
centers for juvenile offenders.
The judge’s order followed an arbitrator’s decision upholding the union’s
position that Quinn’s decision violated the employees’ labor contract. Both
sides were ordered to negotiate a solution within 30 days. The judge’s decision effectively maintains the status
quo until a deal is reached.
The legal battle between Quinn and
the American Federation of State,
County and Municipal Employees union
(AFSCME) demonstrates the complications of the debate over supermax prisons. Among the big issues in Illinois:
jobs, safety in the state’s remaining prisons, state spending on an institution
running at far below capacity because
of a court ruling and longstanding
human-rights concerns over supermax
Ever since Quinn began publicly
weighing the possibility of shutting
Tamms, AFSCME leaders have insisted that the move — in addition to
costing 250 jobs in economically struggling southern Illinois — would raise
the danger level in institutions to which
Tamms prisoners would be transferred.
“Conditions are already volatile and dangerous in the prison system, which is
jammed,” Henry Bayer, AFSCME’s executive director in Illinois, said in early
August. 66
When he spoke, the confrontation
between the union and Quinn had been
heating up. In late July, The Associated
Press reported that the state corrections
department ordered pat-down searches
of employees as they left work at about
15 state prisons. Union members alleged
that the search order was designed as
retaliation for leaks to a newspaper about
plans to transfer as many as nine Tamms
inmates to prisons in other states. Union
leaders said the reported plan to send
dangerous inmates out of state showed
that Illinois officials were aware that the
supermax was the only safe place to
house those inmates within the boundaries of their own state. 67

Among the nine reportedly considered for transfer was Henry Brisbon,
who entered prison on a 1,000- to
3,000-year sentence for killing an engaged couple in 1973. In prison, he
was sentenced to death for stabbing
another inmate to death. His death
sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when, in 2000, Republican
Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty, which the
Illinois legislature later abolished. 68
Inmates classified as extremely dangerous may have been the only ones
left at Tamms in the wake of the 2010
federal court ruling that prisoners had
a constitutional right to challenge
transfer to Tamms. By this year, according to a budget summary by
Quinn’s office, Tamms had a prisoner population of 389, or slightly more
than half the prison’s 753-inmate capacity. The prison’s annual operating
cost is $62,000 per prisoner, compared
with the state average of $21,405. 69
When Quinn disclosed his plan in
June to close Tamms, he said he
hoped the legislature would channel
the savings into the Department of
Children and Family Services, which
had suffered a $50 million budget cut
that would eliminate 375 jobs. “I think
the priority is children, not a half-empty
prison,” he said. 70
Alan Mills, legal director for the
nonprofit Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which represented prisoners in the case that led to the federal court ruling, says the court decision
strongly influenced the governor’s decision. The judge forced a “recognition that penologically you don’t need
Tamms,” Mills says.

New Litigation
ecent lawsuits against federal and
state supermaxes continue a legal
offensive under way virtually since the
first such prison opened. Lawsuits filed


Continued on p. 782

At Issue:
Should solitary confinement be limited to one year?







t’s an awful thing, solitary,” Sen. John McCain wrote
of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “It
crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance
more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” McCain
spent about two years in solitary; in the United States today,
many prisoners are held in continuous solitary confinement for
five years, 10 years or longer.
It’s undisputed that solitary confinement is profoundly and
sometimes irreparably damaging, and the damage becomes
more severe with increasing duration. In 2010, a federal judge
reviewing conditions at Illinois’ Tamms supermax prison concluded that “Tamms imposes drastic limitations on human contact, so much so as to inflict lasting psychological and emotional harm on inmates confined there for long periods.” And
in 2005, a group of mental health experts told the U.S.
Supreme Court that “no study of the effects of solitary or
supermax-like confinement that lasted longer than 60 days
failed to find evidence of negative psychological effects.” Some
effects, such as a slowing of brain activity, are detectable after
as little as one week.
On the other side of the ledger, there’s little proof that solitary confinement promotes prison or public safety, and a growing body of evidence indicates that it’s actually counterproductive. A 2006 study found that opening a supermax prison had
no effect on prisoner-on-prisoner violence in Arizona, Illinois
and Minnesota. Indeed, Mississippi Corrections Commissioner
Christopher Epps recently testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that when his state slashed its solitary population by
75 percent, violent incidents fell by half. And a 2004 study
from Washington state found that prisoners who had experienced solitary confinement were more likely to commit new
crimes upon release, and also committed more serious crimes,
than similar prisoners who had not been in solitary.
No one denies that some prisoners sometimes require
physical separation so they don’t harm others. But physical
separation can be achieved without the extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation that are the hallmarks of solitary
confinement. Based on the overwhelming evidence of its
harmful effects, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on
Torture in 2011 recommended a global ban on solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days. But even a one-year limit
would dramatically reduce the suffering and damage caused
by solitary confinement as it’s practiced in the United States
today. It should be adopted without delay.


n the debate over whether solitary confinement is beneficial or hostile to prisoner management, legal considerations have received insufficient attention.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that officials have
a duty to take reasonable measures to protect prisoners from
violence. But to provide reasonable measures to protect safety,
officials must be able to control prisoners’ mobility, interaction
with other prisoners and capability to harm others. Hands-on
methods of control (i.e., grappling, fighting) provide a high
risk of injury. Restraint methods such as pepper spray, electronic restraint devices and restraint chairs provide safer force
options. Despite abundant data demonstrating the safety benefits, detractors are campaigning to ban their use.
Solitary confinement is effective for managing prisoners who
are a serious threat to others. However, the well-established effectiveness and safety benefits of solitary — just as with pepper
spray or restraint chairs — have become targets of self-styled
reformers. There are many operational justifications to support
the value of solitary confinement; however, one that justifies attention is the litigation threat to corrections officials if they fail
to protect prisoners from violence when the officials know of a
serious or excessive risk of prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
The Supreme Court has ruled that if officials know of a
substantial risk of harm to a prisoner, but knowingly disregard
the risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it,
and the prisoner suffers serious harm, the officials may be
found deliberately indifferent and thus liable for the harm to
the prisoner. When officials know a prisoner is a gang member, a predator or has other violent propensities, assigning that
prisoner to general housing and permitting the prisoner to
have direct interaction with other inmates pose a strong potential to create a substantial threat of violence to other prisoners. Solitary limits prisoner violence by limiting physical
contact with other inmates and staff. Simply put, limiting or
controlling violent prisoners’ interaction with other prisoners
greatly limits the potential for violence.
A time limit on confinement is appropriate in cases where
the aim is to discipline a rule-breaking inmate. But when the
isolation is based on a prisoner’s history of being a violent
predator or violent gang member, the time frame for solitary
confinement should be indefinite. A few months in isolation do
not change a highly dangerous individual into an easily manageable prisoner. Solitary confinement of such prisoners is, in
many cases, essential to the safety of other inmates and staff.

yes no


Sept. 14, 2012


Continued from p. 780

in recent months against the federal
supermax at Florence, Colo., the California supermax at Pelican Bay and
the Arizona state prison system, including its long-term solitary unit, present a long list of charges against officials of the three systems.
None of the systems has yet filed
a detailed response to the allegations. However, Federal Bureau of
Prisons Director Samuels in effect
countered the federal lawsuit’s allegations that the Florence supermax
housed deeply mentally ill prisoners
and denied them effective treatment.
“Only a very small proportion of offenders are held in more restricted
housing, and most for only brief periods of time,” Samuels said.
Referring to the strict-solitary wing,
Samuels said placement “is restricted
to inmates who clearly pose an extreme safety risk and need stringent
restrictions to maintain safety for other
inmates, staff, institutional operations
and the public.” 71
The lawsuit against the Florence
prison, filed on behalf of five inmates
by Arnold & Porter, a prominent Washington law firm, and the Washington
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
and Urban Affairs, lays out a harrowing account of untreated mental
illness in the most restrictive of the
solitary confinement units.
“Even where prisoners . . . are properly identified as having a serious
mental illness,” the lawsuit states, “many
are not given appropriate treatment,
including either counseling or medication.” In allegedly withholding treatment, the bureau is ignoring its own
rules, the lawsuit says. 72
The lawsuit’s lengthy and highly
detailed accounts of self-mutilation and
other self-destructive behavior prompted a similarly detailed and impassioned
denunciation of the supermax by Andrew Cohen, a contributing editor at
The Atlantic magazine and a legal analyst for CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”


CQ Researcher

“For these inmates,” Cohen wrote of
mentally ill prisoners in strict solitary,
“the prison is a gulag, a place of unspeakable cruelty and state-sponsored
wickedness, run by officials who ignore
their own policies and seem to revel
in humiliating prisoners by depriving
them of basic human dignities.” 73
A separate but related lawsuit filed
last May centers on the suicide of an
allegedly severely mentally ill inmate at
Florence in 2010. José Martin Vega, who
was serving four consecutive life sentences on a 1995 conviction for racketeering and armed drug trafficking, had
been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, the lawsuit alleges. 74
Vega’s brother, Raymond, represented by an Arnold & Porter lawyer, is
suing warden Blake R. Davis over the
suicide, alleging that prison staff chained
Vega, sometimes for 10 days or more
at a time, instead of treating him. “The
behavior claimed by the BOP (Bureau
of Prisons) to justify such abuse was
a product of Vega’s untreated mental
illness,” the lawsuit states, without specifying Vega’s behavior. 75
Vega was found dead in his cell. A
coroner ruled he had hanged himself.
Treatment of mentally ill prisoners,
including those held in long-term solitary, is also a major issue in a federal class-action lawsuit filed in March
against Arizona prison officials for allegedly seriously deficient medical care,
including mental health care, throughout the state’s prison system. 76
Lawyers for the state deny specific allegations. And, they wrote in their
first response to the lawsuit, they specifically rejected the claim that prison officials “are deliberately indifferent to a
substantial risk of serious physical or
psychiatric harm” to prisoners in solitary. Further, they said that prisoners
are kept in solitary only for unspecified short periods of time, except for
prison gang members. The latter, the
state said, can exit solitary by providing information about gang activities and renouncing membership. 77

And California’s Pelican Bay supermax is the target of a class-action lawsuit filed last May that centers on gang
members and alleged members. California prison policy, the lawsuit alleges, is to confine these prisoners in
strict solitary unless they “debrief” with
prison staff — that is, provide information on other inmates’ gang activities. Informing on fellow prisoners, the
lawsuit says, would invite retaliation
on the informants and their families.
“Accordingly, for those many prisoners
who refuse or are unable to debrief,
defendants’ policies result in ‘effectively permanent’ solitary confinement,” the
lawsuit says. 78
Moreover, according to the lawsuit,
evidence of gang affiliation for at least
some of the prisoners is sketchy. One
plaintiff, George Ruiz, has been in solitary confinement for 22 years “based
on nothing more than his appearance
on lists of alleged gang members discovered in some unnamed prisoners’
cells and his possession of allegedly
gang-related drawings.” 79
The lawsuit, filed by lawyers of the
New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, followed a hunger strike
last year by prisoners in the Pelican
Bay long-term solitary unit. Among
other issues, they were protesting the
debriefing requirement. In response,
California’s undersecretary of corrections, Scott Kernan, told prisoners that
the state would assess the criteria by
which prisoners are categorized as
gang members, as well as the debriefing procedure. 80
After the lawsuit was filed, the department declined to comment. But a
spokesman told a reporter that the department was still designing a system
under which prisoners could “demonstrate their ability to refrain from criminal gang behavior” and would undergo preparation for living in “housing
in a less restrictive environment.” Prisoners still in solitary would get added
privileges if they “refrain from criminal gang behavior.” 81

‘Losing Favor’
rison experts generally concur
that supermaxes and the strict isolation they represent will keep declining in use. “It’s losing favor as a result, to some extent, of litigation,” says
Martin, the Texas-based prison consultant and monitor. Driving the supermax
decline, he says, are judicial prohibitions on keeping mentally ill prisoners
in strict solitary.
Aside from the fact that mentally ill
prisoners typically make up a large
percentage of supermax inmates, Martin says, “There is growing acknowledgement by prison administrators
that we need to be more careful in
choosing to put people in segregation
and need to be more careful in how
long we keep them. Systems are learning to operate without such a reliance
on segregation.”
Atherton, the Colorado prison consultant, also sees a trend, but argues
that it won’t and shouldn’t lead to
complete abolition of long-term solitary.
Financial pressures to close supermaxes
are real, he says, and politicians may
want to close isolation units to build
support among prison critics. “They’ll
close administrative segregation and
say, ‘Look what a wonderful person I
am.’ Or they will be judicious and preserve the ways in which wardens can
put bad people in lockup.”
Strict solitary confinement won’t
disappear, Atherton argues. “Wardens
and correctional professional associations will rise up and preserve the
ability to provide administrative segregation, which by law is constitutional.” However, he says, “It might be
used less because of the cost.”
Cohen, the Arizona penology editor, also says further supermax closings are likely — but only “if you


can pitch it in a way that says you’re
not compromising safety inside or
One danger of continuing a relatively high use of strict solitary, he
says, is that prisoners will come to depend on court rulings prohibiting that
form of imprisonment for the mentally ill. “You end up putting a premium on mental illness: ‘If it takes being
crazy to stay out, I’ll be crazy.’ ”
DeLand, the former Utah corrections official and a defender of strict
solitary confinement, concedes that supermax construction became a “fad.”
But, he says, “You have to recognize
you have certain prisoners” who require round-the-clock lockdown.
“You want your very best people
running these operations,” DeLand says.
Under those circumstances, he says,
“They work pretty well.”
Nonetheless, says the ACLU’s Fathi,
financial and legal pressures to decrease use of long-term solitary are
becoming overwhelming. “This is an
enormously expensive way to house
people,” he says. “As states are experiencing fiscal pressure, they are taking a long-overdue second look at
whether this is an appropriate use of
scarce public dollars.”
Meanwhile, prison professionals are
increasingly recognizing that supermaxtype confinement “is overused and that
there are people there who don’t belong there.”
Mills of the Uptown People’s Law
Center in Chicago, whose litigation
against the Tamms supermax in Illinois
helped set the stage for the governor’s
order to close the prison, says that move
represents an irreversible trend. “In 10
to 15 years, I don’t think that more than
one or two will be left.”
Supermaxes, Mills says, “were an
experiment that never had an evidentiary basis in the first place. There
is no empirical evidence that they
make prisons systems any safer. The
economy no longer gives states the
money to experiment.”


Maurice Possley, “Anthony Graves,” National
Registry of Exonerations, undated,
2 Anthony C. Graves, written testimony, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, June 19,
3 Michael Jacobson, written testimony, Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil
Rights and Human Rights, June 19, 2012, www.
4 Chase Riveland, “Supermax Prisons: Overview
and General Considerations,” 1999 National
Institute of Corrections, pp. 5-6, http://static.
5 “Sen. Richard J. Durbin Holds a Hearing
on Reassessing Solitary Confinement,” Senate
Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee
on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights,
CQ Transcriptions, June 19, 2012.
6 Juan E. Méndez, “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment,”
United Nations General Assembly, Aug. 5, 2011,
p. 17,
SpecRapTortureAug2011.pd; “Juan E Méndez,”
American University, faculty biographies, undated,
7 Daniel P. Mears, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons,” Urban Institute,
March, 2006, pp. 1, 3,
8 Michael Jacobson, written testimony, op. cit.
Quoted in Alex Barber, “Less restriction equals
less violence at Maine State Prison,” Bangor
Daily News, June 15, 2012, http://bangordaily
Lance Tapley, “Reducing solitary confinement,”
Portland Phoenix, Nov. 2, 2011, http://port
9 The case is Wilkinson v. Austin, 544 U.S.
74 (2005),
10 “Sen. Richard J. Durbin Holds a Hearing
. . . ,” op. cit.
11 Terry A. Kupers, et al., “Beyond Supermax
Administrative Segregation,” Criminal Justice and
Behavior, July 21 2009, p. 4,

Sept. 14, 2012


12 Ruiz, et al., v. Brown, et al., U.S. District
Court, Northern District of California, Case
No 4:09-cv-05796-CW, Second Amended Complaint, May 31, 2012, www.clearinghouse.
13 Hope Metcalf and Judith Resnik, written testimony, Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, June 19,
loads/2012/06/hope-metcalf-and-judith-resnikyale-law-school.pdf; “Administrative Segregation and Classification System Analysis and
Review Process,” Colorado Department of Corrections, January 2012, p. 7,
14 David C. Fathi, “The Common Law of Supermax Litigation,” Pace Law Review, Spring
2004, p. 681,
15 Bacote, et al., v. Federal Bureau of Prisons,
et al., Case 1:12-cv-01570, Complaint, June 18,
16 Mears, op. cit., p. 33.
17 Méndez, op. cit., p. 17.
18 “Standard 23-4.3 Disciplinary Sanctions,” Standards on Treatment of Prisoners, American Bar
Association, February 2010, www.americanbar.
19 Gillis v. Litscher, et al., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, No. 06-2099,
Nov. 14, 2006,; Martha Nell, “Longtime
7th Circuit Judge Terence Evans Is Dead After
Sudden Illness,” ABA Journal, Aug. 11, 2011,
20 Atul Gawande, “Hellhole,” The New Yorker,
March 30, 2009,

21 Written testimony, Charles E. Samuels, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Subcommittee on the
Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights,
Senate Judiciary Committee, June 19, 2012,
22 Chad R. Trulson, James W. Marquart and
Soraya K. Kawucha, “Gang Suppression and
Institutional Control,” Corrections Today, American Correctional Association, April 2006, p. 30,
23 Ibid.
24 Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994),
25 Daniel P. Mears, “An Assessment of Supermax Prisons Using an Evaluation Research
Framework,” The Prison Journal, March, 2008,
26 Kupers, et al., op. cit., p. 4.
27 Westefer, et al., v. Snyder, et al., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Case 00-162-GPM, Dec. 9, 2009.
28 “Sen. Richard J. Durbin Holds a Hearing
. . . ,” op. cit.
29 “Memorandum and Order,” Westefer, et al. v.
Snyder, et al., op. cit., July 20, 2010, www.leagle.
30 Ibid.
31 “Sen. Richard J. Durbin Holds a Hearing
. . . ,” op. cit.
32 Craig Haney, written testimony, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil
Rights and Human Rights,” June 19, 2012,
33 Ibid.

About the Author
Peter Katel is a CQ Researcher contributing writer who
previously reported on Haiti and Latin America for Time
and Newsweek and covered the Southwest for newspapers
in New Mexico. He has received several journalism awards,
including the Bartolomé Mitre Award for coverage of drug
trafficking, from the Inter-American Press Association. He
holds an A.B. in university studies from the University of
New Mexico. His recent reports include “Prisoner Reenty”
and “Downsizing Prisons.”


CQ Researcher

34 Except where otherwise noted, this subsection is drawn from Scott Christianson, With
Liberty For Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment
in America (1998), pp. 133-138.
35 Quoted in ibid., p. 135.
36 Quoted in ibid., p. 136.
37 Quoted in ibid., p. 138.
38 Except where otherwise indicated, information in this subsection is drawn from Medley,
Petitioner, 134 U.S. 160 (1890), http://supreme.;
Stuart Grassian, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary
Confinement,” Journal of Law and Policy, 2006,
pp. 329-330,
39 Quoted in Medley op. cit.
40 “Samuel F. Miller, 1862-1890,” The Supreme
Court Historical Society, undated, www.supreme
41 Quoted in ibid.
42 Metcalf and Resnik, op. cit., p. 9,
43 Fred Cohen, “Isolation in Penal Settings:
The Isolation-Restraint Paradigm,” Journal of
Law and Policy, 2006, p. 317, http://law.wustl.
44 Ibid.
45 Riveland, op. cit., p. 5; Erwin N. Thompson,
The Rock: A History of Alcatraz Island 18471972 (undated), National Park Service, pp. 387,
46 Ibid., p. 334.
47 “A Brief History of Alcatraz,” Federal Bureau of Prisons, undated,
48 Peter M. Carlson and Judith Simon Garrett,
Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and
Theory (1999), p. 255; E. R. Shipp, “Killings
Tighten Rule At Tough Prison,” The New York
Times, Jan. 20, 1984, p. A14.
49 Ibid., Shipp; “Racist Inmates Who ‘Kill for
Sport’ Are Suspects in Slayings,” The Associated Press, Oct. 30, 1983.
50 Carlson and Garrett, op. cit., p. 255; Admission and Orientation Handbook, United States
Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois,” Federal Bureau of
Prisons, updated October 2010,
51 Quoted in “Racist Inmates Who Kill . . .,”
op. cit.
52 “The Federal Death Penalty System: Supplementary Data, Analysis and Revised Protocols
for Capital Case Review,” U.S. Justice Department, June 6, 2001,


Quoted in Scot Lehigh, “Weld opens ‘super’
secure prison unit,” Boston Globe, Aug 6, 1991,
p. 21; Mary Bosworth, Explaining U.S. Imprisonment (2010), p. 141.
54 Mears, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons,” op. cit., pp. 69-70 (Tables 1, 2).
55 Riveland, op. cit., p. 1.
56 Ibid., p. 2.
57 Madrid v. Gomez, Jan. 10, 1995, Findings
of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order, http://
58 Ibid.; Bill Wallace, “Conditions at Pelican
Bay Prison Ruled Unconstitutional, But Judge
Says Isolation Unit Can Remain,” San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 12, 1995, p. A17; Susan
Sward and Bill Wallace, “No More Solitary Confinement for Prison’s Mentally Ill,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 20, 1995, p. A17, www.sf
59 Madrid v. Gomez, op. cit.
60 Jules Lobel “Prolonged Solitary Confinement
and the Constitution,” Journal of Constitutional
Law, December 2008,
61 “Solitary Confinement Called ‘Inappropriate’ for Mentally Ill Prisoners in Indiana,” ACLU
(press release), Jan. 30, 2007,
Fathi, op. cit., p. 679.
62 Wilkinson v. Austin, 544 U.S. 74 (2005),
June 13, 2005,
04-495.ZS.html; Lobel, op. cit., pp. 127-129.
63 Ibid., pp. 128-129.
64 “Stop Solitary — Mental Health Resources,”
ACLU, regularly updated,
65 Quoted in John J. O’Connor, “Illinois judge
bars Quinn from closing prisons,” The Associated Press, Sept. 4, 2012, www.businessweek.
66 Quoted in John O’Connor, “Ill. Agrees to
stop prison transfers temporarily,” The Associated Press, Aug. 8, 2012, http://bigstory.ap.
porarily; Sal Rodriguez, “Testimony From Hearing on Closure of Tamms Supermax Prison,”
Solitary Watch, April 21, 2012, http://solitary; Jim
Suhr, “To Tamms, prison closure means pain,
betrayal,” The Associated Press (SFGate, July 15,

ACLU National Prison Project, 915 15th St., N.W., 7th Floor, Washington, DC
20005; 212-549-2500; Litigates on behalf of prisoners
in solitary confinement and is campaigning to end the practice.
American Correctional Association, 206 N. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314;
703-224-0000; Provides material on solitary confinement.
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, University of Michigan Law School, 625
South State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109; 734-647-2160; National
repository of litigation documents, many from major lawsuits over conditions in solitary confinement.
National Institute of Justice, 810 7th St., N.W., Washington, DC 02531; 202-3070703; Justice Department’s research arm; includes a library of studies on prison issues.
Segregation Reduction Project, Vera Institute of Justice, 1100 First St., N.E., Suite 950,
Washington, DC 20002; 202-465-8900; Advocacy effort that aims to lower the number of prisoners in long-term
solitary confinement, conducted with state corrections departments.
Solitary Watch, PO Box 11374, Washington, DC 20008;
Anti-solitary confinement advocacy group co-led by a veteran muckraking journalist.
John O’Connor, “AP Exclusive: Shakedowns
of prison staff ordered,” The Associated Press,
July 30, 2012,
68 Emily Wilkerson, “Ultimate confinement
doesn’t change most violent inmate,” State
Journal-Register (Springfield, Ill), Oct. 23, 1995,
p. 1, local section; “Death Row inmate receives
life,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 12, 2003, www.chica
pdf; Don Babwin, “Illinois Death Row Shuts
Down,” The Associated Press (The Huffington
Post), July 2, 2011,
“Governor Ryan Declares Moratorium on Executions,” press release, Illinois Government
News Network, Jan. 31, 2000, www.illinois.
69 “Quinn Staying with Dwight, Tamms, Closures,” Illinois Public Media, July 17, 2012,; “Efficiencies Fact Sheet — FY 2013 Budget,” Illinois governor’s office, June 30, 2012, http://
70 Quoted in Bill Ruthhart, “Quinn’s budget
swap,” Chicago Tribune, June 30, 2012, p. A1.
71 Charles E. Samuels Jr., written testimony,
op. cit.


Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, op.
cit., p. 21.
73 Andrew Cohen, “An American gulag — the
Mentally Ill at Supermax,” The Atlantic, June 20,
74 Vega v. Davis, U.S. District Court for the
District of Colorado, Case 1:12-cv-01144-RPM,
May 1, 2012,
public/PC-CO-0020-0001.pdf; Andrew Cohen,
“Death, Yes, But Torture at Supermax?,” The
Atlantic, June 4, 2012,
75 Vega v. Davis, op. cit., pp. 8-9.
76 Gamez, et al. v. Ryan, et al., United States
District Court, District of Arizona, CV-20-2070PHX-JWS,
77 “Amended Answer to Class Action Complaint,” Gamez v. Ryan, June 4, 2012, p. 17.
78 Ruiz, et al., v. Brown, et al., op. cit., pp. 2-3.
79 Ibid., p. 2.
80 Rina Palta, “Civil rights group sues California
over the state’s Security Housing Unit at Pelican
Bay State Prison,” KPCC, May 31, 2012, www.scpr.
81 Ibid.

Sept. 14, 2012


Selected Sources

Reports and Studies

Bosworth, Mary, Explaining U.S. Imprisonment, SAGE, 2010.
Writing from a critical perspective, an American criminologist at Britain’s University of Oxford provides historical context for the rise of long-term solitary confinement.

Fathi, David C., “The Common Law of Supermax Litigation,”
Pace Law Review, Spring, 2004, http://digitalcommons.pace.
The director of the ACLU National Prison Project summarizes
the effects of major court decisions on solitary confinement.

Christianson, Scott, With Liberty For Some: 500 Years of
Imprisonment in America, Northeastern University Press,
A journalist specializing in criminal justice provides a narrative history of U.S. prison systems.

Grassian, Stuart, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,” Journal of Law & Policy, 2006, http://law.wustl.
A leading researcher and critic of long-term solitary confinement examines the effects of isolation.

Cohen, Andrew, “An American Gulag — the Mentally Ill
at Supermax,” The Atlantic, June 20, 2012, www.the
A journalist specializing in legal affairs writes a detailed and
impassioned condemnation of conditions at the federal supermax in Florence, Colo. The article is part of a continuing series.
Gawande, Atul, “Hellhole,” The New Yorker, March 30,
An influential article by a prominent physician-writer argues that long-term solitary confinement amounts to torture.
Goldberg, Jamie, “Prison solitary called inhumane,” Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), June 22, 2012, p. A9.
A brief report — and one of very few — on a Senate subcommittee’s hearing on long-term solitary confinement.
Goode, Erica, “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money,
Lives and Sanity,” The New York Times, March 10, 2012,
A national correspondent chronicles the supermax-reduction
trend, focusing largely on Mississippi.
Goode, Erica, “Fighting a Drawn-Out Battle Against Solitary Confinement,” The New York Times, March 30, 2012,
In a follow-up article, The Times reports on California’s controversial policy of segregating and locking down suspected
gang members.
Smyth, Julie Carr, “Supermax lockups adjust to decreasing
demand,” The Associated Press, April 5, 2008.
Toward the end of the previous decade, financial and legal
pressures were forcing the closing of supermax prisons, a
state government correspondent reported.


CQ Researcher

Mears, Daniel P., “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons,” Urban Institute, March 2006, www.urban.
In one of the most comprehensive and dispassionate examinations of long-term solitary confinement, a Florida State
University scholar concludes that justifications for supermaxes
are not clear-cut.
Méndez, Juan E., “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment of punishment,” United Nations
General Assembly, Aug. 5, 2011, p. 17, http://solitary
A “special rapporteur” for the U.N. Human Rights Council
concludes that solitary confinement can amount to torture.
Metzner, Jeffrey L., and Jamie Fellner, “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for
Medical Ethics,” Journal of the American Academy of
Psychiatry and the Law, March 1, 2010,
A wealth of evidence shows prolonged solitary confinement deeply damages mentally ill prisoners.
O’Keefe, Maureen L., “One Year Longitudinal Study of the
Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation,” Colorado Department of Corrections, University of Colorado,
Colorado Springs, Oct. 31, 2010,
The Colorado prison system’s research director found no
evidence of systemic psychological damage to prisoners, including the mentally ill, in solitary confinement.
Riveland, Chase, “Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations,” National Institute of Corrections,
January 1999,
The report by a prison management consultant — a former corrections director in two states — provides perspective on why supermax prisons have proved so popular and
on the challenges they present for penology.

The Next Step:
Additional Articles from Current Periodicals


Maes, Denise, “Solitary Confinement Reform Is Welcome
Sign of Progress,” The Gazette (Colo.), Jan. 28, 2012, www.
Colorado’s decision to move 300 inmates out of solitary
confinement is safer, less costly and more humane, says the
public policy director of the state’s ACLU office.

Gorman, Anna, “Activists Call Solitary Confinement Torture,” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2012, p. B4, articles.
California treats several thousand prisoners the same way
the United States treats suspected terrorists detained in Guantánamo, says an attorney representing hundreds of California inmates.

Mitchell, Kirk, “Inmate Isolation Reviewed,” Denver Post,
Nov. 27, 2011, p. B10,
More mentally ill prisoners are in solitary confinement in
Colorado than in any other state.

Kochakian, Charles, “Solitary Confinement May Be Crueler
Than Death Penalty?” New Haven (Conn.) Register, April
8, 2012, p. B3.
Solitary confinement can be as distressing as physical torture, says the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Mental Illness
Hult, John, “Release From Isolation to Public Called
Risky,” Argus Leader (S.D.), July 11, 2011, www.argus
A transitional period between the isolation and release of
prisoners is essential for public safety, says a psychiatrist.
Matthews, Cara, “Mental Health Treatment at Prisons
Faces Scrutiny,” Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal, Dec. 7, 2011.
New York state law requires inmates with serious mental
illnesses to be removed from solitary confinement.
Ortega, Bob, “Arizona Accused of Abuses in Prisons,”
Arizona Republic, April 3, 2012, p. A1, www.azcentral.
Serious mental illnesses among Arizona prisoners in solitary confinement are often undiagnosed, says an Amnesty
International report.

Ortega, Bob, “Deaths in ‘Solitary’ Point to Problems,”
Arizona Republic, June 3, 2012, p. A6, www.azcentral.
Nineteen Arizona inmates — many of whom were in solitary confinement — committed suicide in the past two years.
Weiser, Benjamin, “Pondering Solitary Future for Gangster Held in Isolation for Years,” The New York Times,
July 9, 2012, p. A13,
The leader of a narcotics gang has remained well-behaved
since being placed in solitary confinement in 2000.

Kumar, Anita, “Va. Plans to Modify Prisoner Isolation,”
The Washington Post, March 31, 2012, p. A1, www.wash
Virginia is reconsidering how it administers solitary confinement at the state’s only supermax prison amid criticism
that the practice equates to torture.
Yates, Riley, “Execution Delays Have Created a Different
Form of Punishment,” Morning Call (Pa.), Aug. 5, 2012,
p. A18,
Several Pennsylvania death row inmates have spent decades
in solitary confinement.

Sample formats for citing these reports in a bibliography
include the ones listed below. Preferred styles and formats
vary, so please check with your instructor or professor.

Jost, Kenneth. “Remembering 9/11,” CQ Researcher 2 Sept.
2011: 701-732.

Jost, K. (2011, September 2). Remembering 9/11. CQ Researcher, 9, 701-732.

Jost, Kenneth. “Remembering 9/11.” CQ Researcher, September
2, 2011, 701-732.

Sept. 14, 2012


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