Across the U.S., solitary confinement is used in jails, prisons, immigration detention centers, military facilities and juvenile justice facilities. Prisoners are isolated from human contact and activity in a cell usually smaller than the size of a parking space for an average of 23 hours per day.
Solitary confinement — also called segregated housing — is often used when prisoners are violent or break rules, but it may also be used in an effort to protect certain inmates who might be more susceptible to physical and sexual abuse, such as people who are transgender and former police.
Regardless, the effects of isolation on prisoners, on the safety of communities and on corrections budgets can be severe. Recently the Vera Institute of Justice published a report describing 10 misconceptions of solitary confinement, which are outlined below.
There are a few states, though, that offer promising practices, and Maine is one.
As Vera pointed out, Maine has not only reduced the use of solitary confinement overall but required those who are placed in it to receive group recreation, counseling sessions and opportunities to gain privileges through good behavior.
Maine also places less severe restrictions on inmates (such as limiting work opportunities) for minor infractions. And it forbids using isolation as punishment for juveniles.
Will the U.S. follow Maine’s lead? Here are some widespread misconceptions, as described by Vera in its report released this month.
Misconception 1: Conditions are stark but not inhumane.
Prisoners are isolated for 23 hours a day. They may have a small window or a fluorescent bulb, which often remains on all the time. They may exercise an hour each day, five days a week, either inside or outside in a cage. When they leave or enter solitary, they are stripsearched. Reading materials are either strictly limited or prohibited.
The European Court of Human Rights has emphasized the long-term dangers associated with isolation and said that, in some circumstances, it could amount to torture. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights states that “prolonged isolation and coercive solitary confinement are, in themselves, cruel and inhuman treatments, damaging to the person’s psychic and moral integrity, and … the dignity inherent to the human person.”
The Eighth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment,” but federal courts have not been receptive to limiting use of solitary confinement broadly. That’s perhaps because an Eighth Amendment violation would have to prove prison officials acted with “deliberate indifference to the prisoner’s health and safety.”
As Vera states, “‘Deliberate indifference’ is only proved if it is shown that prison officials ‘kn[e]w that inmates face[d] a substantial risk of serious harm, but ‘fail[ed] to take reasonable measures to abate it.’ As a result, successful Eighth Amendment claims regarding prison conditions have usually involved the direct action or inaction of prison officials, including medical indifference, failure to protect, and excessive use of force, rather than an overall challenge to general penal practices, such as solitary confinement.”
Misconception 2: It’s reserved only for the most violent.
A substantial number of inmates in solitary confinement are there not because they are the worst of the worst or because they are being punished for being violent. They are often there because they were categorized as potentially dangerous. The segregation is often based on identification, not behavior in the facility.
Inmates at risk are also placed in solitary confinement. They might have special needs or be vulnerable in other ways. For instance they might be a juvenile sentenced as an adult, a gang member or a former police officer.
Others are placed in solitary confinement for breaking facility rules, which includes violent behavior but also minor infractions. Inmates have been placed in solitary confinement for not standing for a count, using abusive language, refusing an order from a corrections officer, and possessing low-level contraband such as small amounts of cash or underwear not issued by the prison.
Misconception 3: It’s used only as a last resort.
Prisons may have available alternative punishments to solitary confinement, but it doesn’t mean they are used.
Some states have flat-out prohibited the use of solitary confinement for less serious violations. They may offer structured sanction grids to guide corrections officers toward punishments proportionate to the infraction, such as restricting TV time or visits with family.
Misconception 4: It’s used only for brief periods of time.
Within the federal corrections system and at least 19 states, corrections officers are allowed to hold inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.
“In 2009, the average length of stay at the Illinois supermax facility, since closed, was more than 6 years; in 2011, the average length of stay in Washington’s intensive management unit was 11 months; and in Texas, the average amount of time in administrative segregation is almost four years,” Vera wrote.
Misconception 5: The harmful effects are overstated and not well understood.
Over the last 150 years, a broad body of research has shown the clear emotional, cognitive, social and physical harm done to a person who spends more than 10 days in involuntary segregation.
Vera wrote, “The characteristics that define segregated housing — social isolation, reduced environmental stimulation, and loss of control over all aspects of daily life — create a ‘potent mix’ that produces a litany of negative impacts, including: hypersensitivity to stimuli, distortions and hallucinations, increased anxiety and nervousness, diminished impulse control, severe and chronic depression, appetite loss and weight loss, heart palpitations, talking to oneself, problems sleeping, nightmares, self-mutilation, difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory, and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days in segregation.
“Upon release from segregated housing, these psychological effects have the potential to undermine significantly an incarcerated person’s adjustment back in the prison’s general population or the community to which he or she returns.”
Misconception 6: It helps keep prisons and jails safer.
One of the biggest reasons corrections staff give for solitary confinement is to maintain control and safety. But there is little evidence to back up the idea that it indeed makes facilities safer.
Many prisons have decreased their use of solitary confinement and maintained staff and prisoner safety. Colorado, for instance, has decreased its use by 85 percent, and prisoner-on-staff assaults are at their lowest level since 2006.
Misconception 7: It deters misbehavior and violence.
There is little evidence that solitary confinement improves the behavior of people in prison. Studies comparing “control-oriented” prisons, which rely on solitary confinement, with “responsibility-based” prisons, which provide inmates with opportunities for self governance, found lower levels of both minor and serious infractions at responsibility-based prisons.
“A recent study found that exposure to short-term disciplinary segregation as a punishment for initial violence did not deter incarcerated people from committing further violence in prison. … Subjecting incarcerated people to the severe conditions of segregated housing and treating them as the ‘worst of the worst’ can lead them to become more, not less, violent,” Vera wrote.
Misconception 8: It is the only way to protect the vulnerable.
Vulnerable prisoners are often placed in solitary confinement to protect them from other prisoners and put under the same restrictions as the most violent offenders.
But some prisons are taking a different approach, creating specialized units to house vulnerable incarcerated people together. This type of effort in Washington state, for instance, has “resulted in safer living conditions for these incarcerated people and safer working conditions for corrections staff.”
Misconception 9: Safe alternatives are expensive.
Actually, solitary confinement is expensive. Putting aside the costs associated with the long-term harm on inmates, it simply costs more to build and operate segregated housing units. More surveillance and security technology are required, and there’s a greater need for more corrections staff to perform searches, escort inmates and provide individualized services.
In 2013, inmates at the federal administrative maximum facility cost $216 per day compared with $86 per day to keep people in the general prison population.
“Many of the policy and practice changes undertaken by jurisdictions to reduce their reliance on segregated housing … cost little to implement. Time and patience are required, but not necessarily an enhanced budget,” Vera wrote.
Misconception 10: Incarcerated people are rarely released directly to the community from solitary confinement.
National data are not available, but each year offenders are released directly into the community after serving time in solitary confinement. Between 1987 and 2007, California released about 900 people each year from its secure housing units into the community. In 2013, Texas let out 1,200 people directly into the community.
People released directly from solitary confinement are more likely to reoffend. A 2001 review of recidivism rates in Connecticut found 92 percent of people who were segregated in prison were rearrested within three years compared with 66 percent of those who were not isolated.