An empty hallway of enclosed prison cells with tray slots on the steel doors.

The Misconception of Solitary Confinement

Last week, Rep. Cori Bush and colleagues introduced a bill that would ban solitary confinement in federal prisons, jails, and detention centers. The End Solitary Confinement Act would prohibit the use of solitary confinement for longer than four hours, ensure those incarcerated receive at least 14 hours outside their cell daily, and incentivize state and local facilities to require the same. Although most states have passed legislation to curb its use, this legislation is more robust and tackles its use on a national level. If passed, it would end a practice that’s common in the U.S. but considered barbaric in most other parts of the world (End Torture Now). 

Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of isolation in detention: physical and social isolation in a cell for 22 to 24 hours per day. During this time, those in solitary confinement receive very little human interaction ( always behind a barrier), have no or little natural light, are stripped of any reading materials or entertainment, and are severely limited from communication with the outside world (ACLU). 

TAKE ACTION

• Listen to first-hand accounts of those directly and indirectly impacted by solitary confinement, including Steven MangualDonna HyltonJoseph de la Luz, and Akeem Browder

Contact President Biden and your representatives in Congress to demand an end to solitary confinement.

• Support the work of Black & Pink, a national prison abolitionist organization dedicated to supporting the safety and liberation of the LGBTQIA2S+ and people living with HIV/AIDS impacted by the criminal legal system. You can make a donation or become a pen pal with someone incarcerated.

Donate to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization working to end the over-criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty.

There’s a misconception that this form of punishment is reserved for violent offenders. In reality, most individuals in solitary confinement have a cognitive disability or mental health condition. Many others impacted are those unfairly penalized for a low-level infraction (ACLU). In four of the five facilities that participated in a study with the Vera Institute for Justice, low-level, nonviolent offenses were the most common infractions to result in solitary confinement (Vera). 

A 2018 study found that men of color were much more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than white men. Although women are less likely to experience solitary confinement, they’re more likely to be sent there because of a low-level infraction (Vera). Prisoners between the ages of 18 and 36 were more likely to be segregated than older individuals (ASCA). And incarcerated individuals that identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to experience solitary confinement. A national survey of LGBTQ+ people that have been held in state or federal prisons found that 85% of respondents spent some time in solitary confinement during their time behind bars—some because it was “safer” than the abuse they experienced in general lockup (Solitary Watch). At least 80,000 people are held in “restricted housing” each day (Prisons Within Prisons: The Use of Segregation in the United States). A more recent study found that nearly 2,000 prisoners have been held in isolation for more than six years (NYAPRS). 

Solitary confinement is detrimental to the health of those who experience it. Psychologically, the social deprivation it causes can rewire the brain, creating long-lasting neurological damage. Individuals who experience prolonged social isolation can experience “social pain,” which the brain processes in the same way as physical pain. Young people, who are still in the formative stages of their physical and mental development, are particularly vulnerable. Individuals who experience solitary confinement can suffer from hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, and exacerbated pre-existing health conditions. It’s also directly linked to premature death. In New York State, the rate of suicide was 5x higher for those that experienced solitary confinement than the average prison population (Vera). 

It also harms those that experience it indirectly. Family members of those held in solitary confinement experience added levels of duress when they couldn’t be in contact with their loved ones, which has lasting implications (Vera). Staff members often experience higher stress and anxiety levels when working in restrictive housing units (Vera). And not only is solitary confinement cruel, but research indicates that it’s ineffective to change behavior. Studies show that the practice does not significantly reduce misconduct, violence, or recidivism. In fact, in some cases, it might increase the likelihood for people to re-offend, especially if they transition directly from solitary confinement to release (Supermax incarceration and recidivism). It’s also costly, calling for 2-3x the costs of housing an incarcerated individual in the general population (Solitary Watch). Facilities could instead leverage these resources for safer and effective forms of care. 

There are alternative options that center the wellbeing of those incarcerated while maximizing safety for all parties involved. Alternative practices have included severely limiting the time of solitary confinement, divesting that time and energy towards mental health care, and fostering social interaction in a more healthy and generative way. They also rally to end the use of solitary confinement entirely for young people, pregnant women, and those with severe mental health conditions. You can read specific tactics taken by five facilities in partnership with Vera and review the Restrictive Housing Assessment Tool they created to guide other facilities to adopt similar practices. But reform still falls far short of the dignity and respect that everyone deserves (The Intercept). 

Solitary confinement is a public health issue that needs to be addressed. No one person’s wellbeing should be at the expense of the illusion of safety. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Representative Cori Bush and colleagues introduced The End Solitary Confinement Act, a bill that would ban the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, jails, and detention centers.

• Solitary confinement is detrimental to the health of those that experience it and their loved ones, and the staff that participates in it. It’s also not proven to reduce levels of misconduct, violence, or recidivism.

• There are alternative options that center the wellbeing of those incarcerated while maximizing safety for all parties involved.

1200 769 Nicole Cardoza

Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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