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Reassessing Solitary Confinement II Keramet Reiter Congressional Testimony 2014

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Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Submitted via e-mail to:

February 21, 2014
Dear Chairman Durbin,
My name is Keramet Reiter. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law
and Society and at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine. I am an expert in the
history and uses of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons; I have been researching and writing
about this topic for more than ten years.
In this testimony, I will discuss, in turn, three aspects of solitary confinement in the United States
on which I have a particular expertise: (1) the lack of evidence that the practice promotes safety,
either in prisons or in communities; (2) the unprecedented scale of the practice – in terms of both
numbers of people confined and durations of confinement; and (3) the history of the practice as
an administrative (rather than legislative or judicial) innovation.
(1) There is Little Evidence that Solitary Confinement and Supermaxes Promote Public Safety
In legal cases and in public hearings like this one, correctional administrators justify extended
uses of solitary confinement as necessary to maintain safety and security throughout a given
state’s prison system. However, there is little evidence that extended solitary confinement
promotes safety and security, either within a given state prison system or within our
Only a small handful of studies have looked at the potential relationship between supermaxes
(long-term solitary confinement facilities) and in-prison violence (in Arizona, Illinois,
Minnesota, and Utah). These studies have found no effects on inmate-on-inmate assaults, and
minimal decreases in inmate-on-staff assaults in prison systems with supermaxes.1 On the other
hand, in states that have reduced or eliminated the use of long-term solitary confinement, inprison violence has remained stable, or even decreased. In Mississippi, following the closure of
Unit 32, a long-term solitary confinement facility, Kupers et. al. documented significant
“reductions in rates of misconduct, violence, and use of force.”2 In 2011, the Maine Department
of Corrections reduced its supermax population by 60 percent, with no detrimental effects on
Chad S. Briggs, Jody L. Sundt, and Thomas C. Castellano, “The Effect of Supermaximum
Security Prisons on Aggregate Levels of Institutional Violence,” Criminology, Vol. 41 (2003):
1341-1376; Jody L. Sundt, Thomas C. Castellano, and Chad S. Briggs, “The Sociopolitical
Context of Prison Violence and Its Control: A Case Study of Supermax and Its Effect in
Illinois,” The Prison Journal, Vol. 88.1 (2008): 94-122.
  Terry A. Kupers, Theresa Dronet, Margaret Winter, et. al., “Beyond Supermax Administrative
Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative
Mental Health Programs,” Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 20.2 (July 2009): 2-14.	


Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

institutional safety and security.3 In California, over the past two years, the state has reviewed the
files of 632 alleged gang members in isolation facilities and determined that 405 posed minimal
threats to institutional safety and security and could be released back into the general prison
population. Again, California has documented no detrimental impacts on institutional safety and
security following these reforms. These successful reforms reveal that prison systems frequently
misidentify the “worst of the worst” prisoners, and also exaggerate their prevalence.
But these are just preliminary conclusions. Most states do not systematically collect data about
violence in and out of solitary confinement units, or post-release recidivism statistics. New York,
Texas, and the federal Bureau of Prisons have recently initiated evaluations of the effectiveness
of solitary confinement. Maryland is considering legislation requiring such an evaluation. These
new studies explicitly acknowledge that we need more data – and less deference to the anecdotal
claims of correctional administrators about the necessity of long-term solitary confinement. Little
evidence supports the continued use of solitary confinement, at current scales and durations.
However, many studies have documented two serious, detrimental impacts of long-term solitary
confinement on both in-prison violence and general public safety: unconstitutional prisoner
abuse and permanent mental health deterioration. First, the harsh conditions in supermax prisons
and the extreme discretionary control prison administrators have over supermax prisoners often
open the door to unconstitutional abuses – clear violations of human rights – in these institutions.
As a result, especially when supermax prisons first open, serious prisoner abuses often occur. In
California, at Pelican Bay State Prison, one supermax prisoner was dipped in scalding water until
his skin peeled off. Also in California, at Corcoran State Prison, supermax prisoners from rival
gangs were set-up to fight to the death, in “gladiator” fights on small exercise yards.4 Journalists
and federal courts alike have documented similar incidents of abuse following supermax
openings in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, and Virginia, to name just a few
  Lance Tapley, “Maine’s Dramatic Reduction of Solitary Confinement,” The Crime Report, Jul.
20, 2011, available online at:
See “Former Inmate at Pelican Bay Wins Judgment Against State,” San Francisco Chronicle,
March 1, 1994: A-18; Matthew Heller, “They Shoot Prisoners, Don’t They?” Independent, Jan.
28, 2001.
See Andy Davis, “State settles pepper-spray suits: Ex-inmate at Varner Supermax Unit to get
$4,000 for ’05 cases,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Feb. 17, 2011, available online at:
00902 (last acessed 20 Feb. 2012); U.S. v. LaVallee, 269 F. Supp. 1297 (D. Colo. 2003) and U.S.
v. Verbickas, 75 Fed. Appx. 705 (10th Cir. 2003) (detailing gruesome abuses of prisoners at the
federal supermax facility in Colorado officers were sentenced to three-plus years in prison);
American Civil Liberties Union, “ACLU Sues CT Corrections Chief Over Abuse of Prisoners
Housed at Notorious Virginia ‘Supermax,’” Press Release, Feb. 7, 2001, available online at: (last accessed 22 Feb. 2012);
Osterback v. Moore, Case No. 97-2806-CIV-HUCK (S.D. Fl.), Defendants Revised Offer of


Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Second, the harsh conditions in supermax prisons can cause severe mental health problems, or
exacerbate existing mental health problems. Indeed, prisoners are often sent to solitary
confinement because they have mental health problems that preclude their adjustment to
standard prison life. Once in solitary confinement, these problems often worsen. And prisoners
who did not have pre-existing mental health problems often start to experience problems – from
hallucinations, to suicidal ideation, to suicide itself – the longer they spend time in isolation.
Suicide rates in solitary confinement facilities are often two-to-three times higher than within the
general prison population.6
These two problems inherent to supermax confinement lead to a third, with devastating social
implications: prisoners are often released directly from solitary or supermax confinement onto
parole, or to the streets. In California, between 50 and 100 prisoners per month were released
directly from supermax institutions onto parole, between 1997 and 2007.7 Colorado,
Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, to name just a few documented
examples, also release prisoners directly from long-term solitary confinement onto the streets.8
Given the documented mental health challenges these prisoners are likely to face, the potential
public safety challenges of these policies can well be imagined, though little research has
systematically investigated the recidivism statistics of this particular former prisoner population.
One study, examining prisoners paroled in Washington State between 1997 and 1998, found that
prisoners who have spent time in solitary confinement have significantly higher felony
recidivism rates than prisoners who have not spent time in solitary confinement.9 And in 2013,
Judgment, Oct. 20, 2003, available online at: (last accessed 23 Feb. 2012);
  Sal Rodriguez, “Fact Sheet: Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement,” SolitaryWatch,
available online at:	
Keramet Reiter, “Parole, Snitch, or Die: California’s Supermax Prisons and Prisoners, 19972007,” Punishment & Society, Vol. 14.5: 530-63 (Dec. 2012).
Bonnie L. Barr, Chuck R. Gilbert and Maureen L. O’Keefe, Statistical Report: Fiscal Year
2010 (Colorado Department of Corrections, Feb. 2011), available online at: (last accessed 20 Feb. 2012); Connecticut
Department of Correction, “Northern Correctional Insitution Admnistrative Segregtion
Program,” at 4, 6, available online at: (last
accessed 21 Feb. 2012); Osterback v. Moore, Case No. 97-2806-CIV-HUCK (S.D. Fl.), Second
Report of Craig Haney, at para. 25 (on file with author); Jamie Fellner and Joanne Mariner, Cold
Storage: Supermaximum Security Confinement in Indiana (New York: Human Rights Watch,
1997); Bruce Porter, “Is Solitary Confinement Driving Charlie Chase Crazy?” New York Times
Magazine, Nov. 8, 1998: 52 (discussing Massachusetts supermax release policies); Terry Kupers,
Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis behind Bars and What We Must Do about It (San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999): 35 (discussing Pennsylvania supermax release policies).
  David Lovell, Clark Johnson and Kevin C. Cain, “Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in
Washington State,” Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 53.4 (Oct. 2007): 633-56.


Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Tom Clements, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, himself an
advocate for solitary confinement reform, was murdered by a prisoner who had been released a
few days before, directly from solitary confinement. Following Clements’s murder, The Denver
Post investigated recidivism statistics and found that half of parolees charged with murder in
Colorado since 2002 had previously spent time in solitary confinement.10 Again, the data about
what happens to people released from solitary and supermax confinement is limited. What little
we do know suggests that solitary confinement is at least as likely to inspire and exacerbate
violence – in and out of prison – as to curb it.
In sum, although solitary confinement and supermaxes are often justified as necessary safety and
security measures in a given state or federal prison system, there is little evidence that the
practice of solitary confinement or the institution of the supermax provides this benefit. There is,
however, abundant evidence that supermax institutions facilitate abuse of prisoners, cause or
exacerbate mental health problems, and export these abused and ill prisoners back into society,
significantly less adapted to healthy societal participation than they were before entering prison.
(2) The Scale of the Use of Solitary Confinement in the United States is Unprecedented
In California, prisoners released from solitary confinement or supermax prisons have spent an
average of approximately two years in isolation. Many more California prisoners serving life
sentences expect never to be released from solitary confinement. As of this writing, more than
500 prisoners in the state have each spent more than 10 years in continuous isolation.11
Individual prisoners’ challenges and journalistic investigations in states like Colorado, New
York, and Virginia suggest that prisoners in other states spend comparably long periods – years
to decades – in total solitary confinement.12 Many states, however, do not even collect data about
  Jennifer Brown and Karen E. Crummy, “Half of parolees who murdered spent time in solitary
confinement,” The Denver Post, Sept. 23, 2013, available online at:
Reiter, supra note 7; Julie Small, “Under Scrutiny, Pelican Bay Prison Officials Say They
Target Only Gang Leaders,” 89.3 KPCC Southern California Public Radio, Aug. 23, 2011.
  James Austin, and Emmitt Sparkman, Colorado Department of Corrections Administrative
Segregation and Classification Review, Technical Assistance No. 11P1022 (Washington, D.C.:
NIC Prisons Division, Oct. 2011), available online at: (last
accessed 14 Feb. 2012): 18 (documenting average length of stay in Colorado supermax of 24
months, or two years); Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State
Prisons (The Correctional Association, Oct. 2003), available online at: (last accessed 14 Feb. 2012) (documenting average length of stay in one New
York solitary confinement facility as 37 months, or more than 3 years); Adam Ebbin, Charniele
Herring, and Patrick Hope, “Why All Virginians Should Care about the Overuse of Solitary


Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

average lengths of stay of state prisoners in solitary confinement, so more systematic national
data is simply not available.
By contrast, in New York in the 1820s, the experimental practice of solitary confinement was
abandoned completely after 18 months, because so many prisoners suffered such obvious
deterioration.13 And in legal challenges to short-term solitary confinement in the 1970s, federal
courts across the United States noted that prisoners usually only spent a few days, to a month at
most, in solitary confinement.14
Not only do American prisoners today spend unprecedentedly long periods of time in solitary
confinement, but unprecedentedly large numbers of prisoners are being held in these conditions.
Whereas in the 1970s, prior to the American prison-building boom, a small handful of prisoners
in the highest security prisons might have been held in solitary confinement, today thousands of
prisoners in nearly every state are held in solitary confinement. All but nine states have a
supermax unit or prison, with at least a few dozen, if not a thousand, beds dedicated to total,
long-term solitary confinement in each of these states. Today, there are more than 20,000
prisoners being held in more than 50 supermax prisons across the United States. And an
additional 50,000 prisoners, or more, are being held in solitary confinement or segregation in
shorter-term, smaller facilities scattered throughout state prison systems.15
Both the long terms prisoners spend in solitary confinement in the United States and the large
number of prisoners being held under these conditions deserve further scrutiny and oversight.
Are these conditions constitutional, effective, or necessary? The answer to this question is, at the
very best, that we do not know.
(3) Solitary Confinement & Supermaxes: An Administrative Innovation
In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that solitary confinement as a punishment “was found to
be too severe” and had been eliminated across the United States. The case concerned a
Confinement,” The Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2012 (noting prisoners had been in solitary
confinement as long as 12 years).
Peter Scharff Smith, “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History
and Review of the Literature,” Crime & Justice, Vol. 34 (2006): 441-528, at 457.
Keramet Reiter, “The Most Restrictive Alternative: A Litigation History of Solitary
Confinement in U.S. Prisons, 1960-2006,” Studies in Law, Politics and Society, Vol. 57 (2012):
These numbers are based on the author’s own unpublished research. For published estimates
of the numbers of prisoners in segregation, solitary confinement, and supermaxes across the
United States, see Chase Riveland, Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations
(U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, January 1999), available online at: (last accessed 13 Feb. 2012); Alexandra Naday,
Joshua D. Freilich, and Jeff Mellow, “The Elusive Data on Supermax Confinement,” The Prison
Journal, Vol. 88 (1): 69-92 (2008).


Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

condemned prisoner who had been held in isolation for one month prior to his execution; the
Court ordered Medley’s release from prison.16 And yet, more than a century later, there are tens
of thousands of U.S. citizens being held in solitary confinement, from California to Maine.
Moreover, these prisoners are spending not days or months in solitary confinement, but years and
decades. In the United States today, 41 states and the federal prison system have at least one
entire prison dedicated to confining people in long-term solitary confinement. These prisons
range in size from a few dozen beds to more than 1,000 beds. Why did the United States return
to this practice, so roundly condemned centuries earlier?
The answer lies at the intersection of mass incarceration and insufficient prison oversight.
Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people in American prisons increased one-thousand-fold,
from just over twenty thousand to just over two million.17 Today, the United States has more
people in prison than any other nation in the world (the closest second is China) and the highest
rate of incarceration of any nation in the world (the closest second is Russia). Indeed, there are
more people under correctional supervision in the United States today than there were in Stalin’s
gulags.18 As the U.S. prison population rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, states and the
federal government built new prisons – often as fast as they could – to house this growing
prisoner population.
During these prison-building years, forty-one of the fifty United States, as well as the federal
prison system, built at least one supermax institution. Supermax prisons are explicitly designed
to keep prisoners in solitary confinement, indefinitely. Arizona built the first supermax in 1986,
and California built two more in 1988 and 1989. In both states, prison administrators, including
wardens and high-level bureaucrats, collaborated with architects to design a new kind of prison.
In both states, legislators had delegated control over prison design, location, and financing to
correctional bureaucrats, as a means to expedite prison building.19 In California and Arizona,
prison administrators, not legislators or governors or judges, designed a newly punitive supermax
prison, which reinstituted a policy that had been largely abandoned in the United States by the
late nineteenth century.
Not only were the first supermax institutions designed by correctional administrators, but
supermax institutions across the United States today are operated at the discretion of correctional
In re: Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168, 161, 175 (1890).
See Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon E. Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1991), at Table 5.1; Heather C. West. & William J. Sabol, Prison
Inmates at Midyear 2008 - Statistical Tables (Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 225619, Mar.
Adam Liptak, “U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs that of Other Nations,” New York Times, Apr.
23, 2008; Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America,” The New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2012.
See Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010); Keramet Reiter, “The Origins of and Need to
Control Supermax Prisons,” California Journal of Politics and Policy, Vol. 5.2: 146-67 (April


Statement of Prof. Keramet A. Reiter
Before the
United States Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

administrators, with little judicial oversight. Judges do not assign prisoners to long-term solitary
confinement in supermaxes; prison guards do. A prisoner in a supermax has either (a) been found
guilty, in an in-prison administrative hearing, of breaking a prison rule or (b) been labeled a
dangerous gang member through an in-prison, administrative evaluation process. A prisoner
labeled as a dangerous gang member is usually sent to a supermax indefinitely – either for the
duration of his prison sentence, or until he consents to “de-brief,” sharing incriminating
information about other gang members.20
In reviewing the constitutionality of supermax prisons, federal courts have generally further
expanded the discretion that correctional administrators have had to design supermaxes, and to
assign prisoners to these institutions. Specifically, courts defer to administrators’ safety-andsecurity justifications for the institutions, with little evidence that these institutions actually
promote safety and security.21 In sum, the administrative discretion underlying the design of
supermax prisons has only been expanded over the last twenty years of supermax operation and
burgeoning uses of solitary confinement across the United States.
Over the last two years, attention to solitary confinement and supermax incarceration has
increased. Tens of thousands of prisoners in California’s supermaxes refused food for weeks at a
time in 2011 and 2013; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned extended
uses of solitary confinement in the United States; state after state has re-examined the high cost,
serious security risks, and potential abuse inherent in supermax incarceration; and Senator
Durbin has now held two federal hearings examining the issue. But we still defer too much to
administrative discretion in justifying and perpetuating solitary confinement policies, and we still
know too little about whether these policies are justified.
In sum, I applaud the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and
Human Rights for hosting a hearing on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The use of solitary
confinement in U.S. prisons is largely invisible, unchecked, and brutal. Congressional attention
raises visibility, and will facilitate efforts to decrease the prevalence of civil and human rights
violations in U.S. prisons.

Keramet A. Reiter, J.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, University of California, Irvine
For further discussion of this process, see Reiter, supra note 7.
See, e.g., Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995) (finding the concept of
California’s supermax prisons to be fundamentally constitutional); Austin v. Wilkinson, 545 U.S.
209 (2005) (holding that placement in supermax prisons raises a liberty interest for prisoners, but
is not unconstitutional).