Solitary Confinement

Solitary Confinement

Solitary Confined: The Case for a Frontier Tort

Executive Summary


A prisoner living in long-term solitary confinement in the United States typically spends twenty-three hours alone each day in a six-foot by nine-foot cell. Everything in the cell is gray concrete and there are no windows. A solid metal door encloses the prisoner, and meals are delivered through a small slot. The cell is under constant video surveillance and most communication with staff is conducted via an intercom system. The prisoner usually has no social contact with other prisoners and very few restricted visits from friends and family, conducted through a thick glass pane or by video. For years at a time, the only physical contact a prisoner living in solitary confinement is likely to have is that of “being touched through a security door by a correctional officer while being placed in restraints or having restraints removed.”

Solitary confinement has a long history in the United States, dating back to its use by the Quakers in the 19th century. The Quakers believed that solitary confinement would create an opportunity for repentance and rehabilitation through solitary reflection. As this paper will illustrate, however, solitary confinement not only results in detrimental psychological effects for prisoners as well as guards, it also has little bearing on rehabilitation, as recidivism rates are actually higher for prisoners in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is used in prisons as a disciplinary measure and sometimes justified as a means of keeping certain vulnerable prisoners safe from violence. Even though solitary confinement for short periods of time has debilitating psychological effects, the probability and severity of damage is much greater for individuals in long-term isolation. This paper addresses the long-term housing of inmates in solitary confinement, with particular focus on super maximum security prisons, facilities comprised entirely of solitary cells, designed for near absolute, long-term isolation.

The growing trend of mass incarceration and prison overcrowding was instigated in part by a “tough-on-crime” political rhetoric, popularized during the Nixon presidency. As the prison system became strained to accommodate the burgeoning population of inmates, the number of super-maximum (“supermax”) security prisons in the United States rose from zero in 1983 to fifty-seven in 1997. In 2000, Human Rights Watch estimated that 20,000 prisoners in the United States were housed in supermax facilities.

The tough-on-crime rhetoric casts prisoners as exceptionally violent, arguing that placement in supermax prisons and long-term isolation units is necessary to keep prison staff, other prisoners, and the general population safe. This stereotyping of prisoners is often racialized, and the media’s depictions usually further dehumanize prisoners, contributing to the alienation of this population from the public.

Importantly, the criteria for placement in supermax prisons and long-term isolation remain unclear, often resulting in overrepresentation of the prison system’s most vulnerable populations, like minors and those with mental illnesses.

Additionally, various societal actors, such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, prison unions, and private companies, exert pressure to maintain the use of long-term solitary confinement. The lack of clear goals, evaluation, and data concerning the effectiveness of long-term solitary confinement further exacerbates this issue by allowing the practice to proliferate unchecked by institutional oversight.

This paper explores the societal and economic context of the use of indefinite solitary confinement, details the psychological cruelty of long-term isolation, and examines possible policy and doctrinal reforms.

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