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Addressing the Injustices of Solitary Confinement in the United States

Abi Koehler
Green
5/15/17
The U.S. Department of Justice must terminate the use of prolonged solitary confinement

for indefinite amounts of time and establish national standards regulating the living conditions,

rights, and opportunities available to vulnerable prisoners to reduce the harmful physical and

psychological effects of ineffective solitary confinement and end the costly and unnecessary

suffering of incarcerated individuals. Solitary confinement, also referred to as isolation,

segregation, restrictive housing, separation, and lockdown, is defined as the physical isolation of

an individual designed to limit social interaction for 22 to 24 hours a day. Charges and terms of

solitary confinement are determined by prison officials and wardens so that every prison has its

own system and varying sentences in which the accused is almost always found guilty. Prisoners

are held in cells, known as Security/Special Housing Units (SHUs), usually between 6x9 or 8x10

feet for periods of time ranging from days to decades (Rodriguez, FAQ). Despite being

considered torture by prominent international groups including the UN Convention Against

Torture and the UN Human Rights Committee, solitary confinement is still widely exercised in

the US, with some 80 to 100,000 individuals held across 44 states and no federal laws

prohibiting or restricting the practice (California Prisoners). Solitary confinement is an

overused punishment in prisons across the U.S. that needs to be restricted and discredited in

order to preserve the sanity of Americas vast prison population and diminish the suffering and

mental illnesses of its inmates.


Prolonged solitary confinement for over fifteen days, denounced as a form of torture by

international advocacy groups, has been proven to cause irreversible mental and psychological

effects on inmates and can amount to inhumane treatment and unchecked cruel and unusual

punishment. An estimated one-third to one-half of those currently held in isolation suffer from

some form of mental illness (Ill-Equipped: U.S.). Prisoners in solitary have very little access to

mental health treatment and are more likely to develop serious mental disorders such as chronic

depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of control, panic, rage, insomnia, hypersensitivity,

hallucinations, and the general deterioration of mental health (Morgan 4). United Nations Special

Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Mndez, claims that the severe mental pain caused by

prolonged solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading

treatment. He states that, contrary to rehabilitation, prolonged solitary confinement is a

virtual incubator for psychoses, inducing illness in formerly healthy inmates and exacerbating

illness in those already afflicted (Solitary Confinement). Instead of recovering and receiving

treatment in mental institutions, inmates are repeatedly placed in solitary for their crazed actions

and are forced into more isolation and longer sentences. Although organizations like the Human

Rights Watch, UN Committee Against Torture, and Department of Justice have provided

recommendation that solitary confinement should not exceed fifteen days and should not be used

on juveniles and the mentally disabled, they have been unsuccessful in enforcing those

recommendations and protecting inmates from unjust amounts of time spent in isolation. In the

U.S., there is no current federal law applying to all states that caps the maximum amount of time

for incarcerated individuals to be sentenced to solitary confinement or that prevents juveniles and

mentally ill people from being isolated for decades (Report and Recommendations). Federal

legislation must be enacted to provide sufficient mental health care for prisoners and to limit the
amount of time spent in solitary confinement to protect inmates from exacerbating critical mental

illnesses with no way of speaking out or obtaining the medical attention that they need.

The increased use of solitary confinement has only led to increased prison violence and

self-destructive habits among inmates that prevents incarcerated individuals from amending their

behavior to become productive citizens and contributive members of society. Prisoners suffering

from mental illnesses, paranoia, hypersensitivity, problems with impulse control, and panic

attacks caused by isolation will lash out and only cause more violence in prisons, making

isolation an entirely ineffective punishment (Grassian 333-36). Further studies from the VERA

Institute of Justice have concluded that solitary confinement leads to an increase in recidivism

and causes individuals who have been released to the community to reoffend rather than learn

from their mistakes (Browne et al. 46). Self-mutilation, suicide, and suicidal thoughts/behavior

have additionally been linked to solitary confinement, and a recent study by the American Civil

Liberties Union found that nearly fifty percent of suicides among incarcerated people are

completed by prisoners held in solitary confinement (Morgan 4). A study conducted in 2009

found that when a significant number of the Mississippi State Penitentiarys solitary confinement

population were transferred to general population, there was an almost 70 percent decrease in the

number of incidents involving violence and the need for force against inmates, demonstrating

that decreasing the use of solitary confinement leads to the reduction in violent altercations in

prisons (Kupers et al. 7). As one of the largest causes of self-violence and aggressive attacks in

prisons, prolonged solitary confinement is not an effective means of punishment on account of

the unnecessary pain and distress to its inmates and further hardship to prison staff as a result of

the malpractice.
Individuals deemed vulnerable and in need of protection, including children, mentally

ill, disabled, and LGBT+ inmates, should not be held in prolonged solitary confinement, unjustly

facing unnecessary periods of time in isolation that can prove detrimental to their health for no

other reason than the lack of anywhere else to put them. In prisons, men and women are

regularly placed in Disciplinary Segregation for punishment and kept there by prison wardens

for extended amounts of time not only for committing violent acts in prison but also for minor

actions such as refusing to eat, ignoring orders, possessing contraband, testing positive for drug

use, and breaking prison rules. Others, especially children, mentally ill or disabled people,

women, LGBT+ individuals, political prisoners, Muslims, and others deemed vulnerable or

at-risk, have done nothing wrong but are still held in isolation called Involuntary protective

custody (Rodriguez, FAQ). One of the worst practices is the thousands of minors separated

from general population and subjected to solitary confinement for extended amounts of time

ranging from hours to years (Rodriguez, Children). Children in isolation are forced to face the

severe psychological afflictions associated with solitary confinement and deteriorate from a lack

of educational and rehabilitative programs while confined, simply because prisons are unable to

provide better conditions for youth and choose to isolate them at the earliest inconvenience rather

than ensuring their health and developmental needs (Against All Odds 21-3). There must be

federal laws and regulations throughout the U.S. to prevent the isolation of minors and reduce

the vast number of undeserving inmates helplessly being forced into protective solitary

confinement for impossible amounts of time.


The immense cost of building and maintaining supermax prisons and Special Housing

Units to hold prisoners in isolation outweighs the effectiveness of solitary confinement as a

punishment and a way of relieving violence in prisons. Nationally, it is estimated that housing

one inmate in solitary confinement for a year costs taxpayers $75,000, which is three times more

than the $25,000 spent in housing an inmate in general population (Rodriguez, The High Cost).

Constructing supermax prisons and isolation chambers can likewise cost two to three times more

than constructing maximum-security prisons and other facilities (Rodriguez, FAQ). The few

states who have recently cut down population held in isolation are already seeing clear fiscal

benefits and saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year, which indicates the positive economic

advantages of limiting solitary confinement (Rodriguez, The High Cost). Solitary confinement is

unreasonably expensive and must be limited as greatly as possible to prevent taxpayers from

spending excessive amounts of money on the inefficacious and fruitless practice of isolation.

In the United States, there are over 80,000 individuals held in solitary confinement, about

25,000 of whom are placed in special supermax prisons made entirely of isolation cells. Solitary

confinement is harmful to those inmates and causes more violence and hostility in prisons than

general population. Lasting destructive mental and physical effects on the thousands of juveniles

and mentally-ill prisoners subjected to isolation are the results of solitary confinements futile

attempts to protect and discipline inmates. Eliminating the use of prolonged solitary confinement

and improving the conditions of isolation on a national level would lead to a significant decrease

in violent disturbances and an increase in cost savings and prisoners positive adjustment,

benefiting not only the staff and inmates in the prison system, but also community as a whole.
Works Cited

Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the

United States. Human Rights Watch, 4 Jan. 2012,

www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0112ForUpload_1.pdf. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Browne, Angela, et al. Prisons within Prisons: The Use of Segregation in the United States. Federal

Sentencing Reporter, vol. 24, no. 1, Oct. 2011, pp. 46-49, doi:10.1525/fsr.2011.24.1.46. Accessed

2 Apr. 2017.

California Prisoners in Solitary Confinement. Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law,

www.centerforhumanrights.org/Prisoners.html. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

Grassian, Stuart. Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement. Washington University Journal of Law

& Policy, vol. 22, Jan. 2006, pp. 325-83, openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?

article=1362&context=law_journal_law_policy. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness. 21 Oct. 2003. Human Rights Watch,

www.hrw.org/report/2003/10/21/ill-equipped/us-prisons-and-offenders-mental- illness. Accessed

31 Mar. 2017.

Kupers, Terry A., et al. Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippis Experience

Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs. Criminal

Justice and Behavior, vol. 20, no. 10, 21 July 2009, pp. 1-14, doi:10.1177/0093854809341938.

Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.


Morgan, Jamelia. Caged In: Solitary Confinements Devastating Harm on Prisoners with Physical

Disabilities. New York, ACLU Foundation, Jan. 2017. American Civil Liberties Union,

www.aclu.org/report/caged-devastating-harms-solitary-confinement-prisoners- physical-

disabilities?redirect=CagedIn. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Report and Recommendations concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing. U.S. Department of Justice,

Jan. 2016, www.justice.gov/archives/dag/report-and-recommendations- concerning-use-

restrictive-housing#principles. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Rodriguez, Sal. Children in Solitary Confinement. Solitary Watch, 2015, solitarywatch.com/wp-

content/uploads/2011/06/FACT-SHEET-Children-in-Solitary-Confinement1.pdf. Accessed 2 Apr.

2017.

---. FAQ. Solitary Watch, 2015, solitarywatch.com/facts/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.

---. The High Cost of Solitary Confinement. Solitary Watch, 2011, solitarywatch.com/wp-

content/uploads/2011/06/FACT-SHEET-The-High-Cost-of-Solitary-Confinement2.pdf. Accessed

2 Apr. 2017.

Solitary Confinement Should Be Banned in Most Cases, UN Expert Says. UN News Centre, United

Nations, 18 Oct. 2011, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40097&Cr= torture&Cr1=#.

Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.


Annotated Bibliography

Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole

Sentences in the United States. Human Rights Watch, 4 Jan. 2012,

www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/ reports/us0112ForUpload_1.pdf. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

This report from the Human Rights Watch provides extensive research on the plight

of juvenile offenders subjected to solitary confinement. There are precise details and

straightforward conclusions about the USs failure to provide for these children that

would be useful in my paper. The coherent data provided in the paper describes the

conditions children in solitary must live through and will be valuable to incorporate in

my argument.

Browne, Angela, et al. Prisons within Prisons: The Use of Segregation in the United

States. Federal Sentencing Reporter, vol. 24, no. 1, Oct. 2011, pp. 46-49,

doi:10.1525/fsr.2011.24.1.46. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

This primary source from the VERA Institute of Justice is a brief overview on the

history and effects of solitary confinement. The article provides information on the

high fiscal costs of supermax prisons and the connection between time spent in

solitary confinement and an increase in recidivism, which would all be useful to

include in my paper.

California Prisoners in Solitary Confinement. Center for Human Rights and

Constitutional Law, www.centerforhumanrights.org/Prisoners.html. Accessed 31 Mar.

2017.
This website published by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law

incorporates very relevant information and specific statistics pertaining to the number

of prisoners in solitary confinement and the states various contributions to the

ongoing problem. First-hand accounts of experiences in solitary confinement and the

mental health effects of isolation are available in this source. The site also contains

links to other significant resources such as news articles, reports, and organizations all

related to solitary confinement.

Grassian, Stuart. Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement. Washington University

Journal of Law & Policy, vol. 22, Jan. 2006, pp. 325-83,

openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/view content.cgi?

article=1362&context=law_journal_law_policy. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

This report details the mental health consequences of solitary confinement and

provides specific information that is very relevant to my argument against the use of

solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. There are plentiful facts on the psychological

harm resulting from being subjected to solitary confinement that I could use in this

primary source by Dr. Stuart Grassian.

Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness. 21 Oct. 2003. Human

Rights Watch, www.hrw.org/report/2003/10/21/ill-equipped/us-prisons-and-offenders-

mental- illness. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.


This report from the Human Rights Watch details the struggles of mentally ill inmates

in solitary confinement and gives specifics on the connection between extended

isolation and suicide/self-mutilation. The deplorable conditions and lack of

rehabilitative programs available in solitary confinement as well as the faults in

responses and training of correctional staff are also thoroughly explained in this

report. Quotes from judges and activists throughout the report give additional

perspectives on the issue as well.

Kupers, Terry A., et al. Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippis

Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health

Programs. Criminal Justice and Behavior, vol. 20, no. 10, 21 July 2009, pp. 1-14,

doi:10.1177/0093854809341938. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

This source details the reform and improvements enforced upon Mississippi State

Penitentiary by the Department of Corrections. Using the events in Mississippi, this

source demonstrates the positive impact of decreasing the population in solitary

confinement, such as reduced amounts of violence and aggression in the prison. This

source would be beneficial to include in my paper to support my argument on the

ineffectiveness of solitary confinement as a punishment and disciplinary measure.

Morgan, Jamelia. Caged In: Solitary Confinements Devastating Harm on Prisoners with

Physical Disabilities. New York, ACLU Foundation, Jan. 2017. American Civil Liberties

Union, www.aclu.org/report/caged-devastating-harms-solitary-confinement-prisoners-

physical-disabilities?redirect=CagedIn. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.


This report from the American Civil Liberties Union is a compilation of the

organizations research on the effect of solitary confinement on inmates with physical

disabilities, and it gives general details about the consequences and mental health

repercussions of solitary confinement in the introduction that would be useful in my

paper. Information on the structure and varying rules of supermax prisons and the

connection between isolation and suicide rates in prisons provided in the primary-

source document would be good facts to include as well.

Report and Recommendations concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing. U.S.

Department of Justice, Jan. 2016, www.justice.gov/archives/dag/report-and-

recommendations- concerning-use-restrictive-housing#principles. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

This report and recommendations by the U.S. Department of Justice is a primary

source exemplifying the more recent efforts of the U.S. to reduce the number of

prisoners subjected to solitary confinement and the amount of time they spend in

isolation. The report could be used in my paper to display the extent of the issue and

the efforts the U.S. is making to ease the situation as well as the lack of firm

legislation applying to all states.

Rodriguez, Sal. Children in Solitary Confinement. Solitary Watch, 2015,

solitarywatch.com/wp- content/uploads/2011/06/FACT-SHEET-Children-in-Solitary-

Confinement1.pdf. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.


This concise fact sheet from Solitary Watch is a secondary source that contains quotes

from solitary and statistics pertaining to the number of juveniles held in solitary

confinement. The information about the reasons children are isolated and the

psychological effects of solitary confinement on young developing brains could be

beneficial to support my argument. The fact sheet also has extensive footnotes and

can be used to find additional sources relating to the topic of children in solitary.

---. FAQ. Solitary Watch, 2015, solitarywatch.com/facts/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.

This web page on Solitary Watch has extremely useful information on a variety of

topics relating to solitary confinement and includes links to other sources such as

relevant court cases and testimonies. The abundance of specific facts and information

detailing the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. is very helpful, providing specific

statistics and data that would enhance my arguments. The web page thoroughly

answers questions concerning the number of people in solitary confinement, the

conditions they face, the lasting psychological effects, and the cost, which are all

evidence that can be utilized in my arguments.

---. The High Cost of Solitary Confinement. Solitary Watch, 2011, solitarywatch.com/wp-

content/ uploads/2011/06/FACT-SHEET-The-High-Cost-of-Solitary-Confinement2.pdf.

Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.


This fact sheet is a great overview on the overly-expensive constructing and

maintaining of solitary confinement chambers. The secondary source contains

statistics and specific numbers for the cost of housing prisoners in isolation vs.

general population in several different states. and the information on large amount of

savings arising from a decrease in the use of solitary confinement is relevant and

useful to support my argument.

Solitary Confinement Should Be Banned in Most Cases, UN Expert Says. UN News

Centre, United Nations, 18 Oct. 2011, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?

NewsID=40097&Cr= torture&Cr1=#. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

This source presents the beliefs of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture,

Juan E Mendez. It provides Mendezs warnings about the use of solitary confinement

on juveniles and the connection between mental illness and extended periods of time

in isolation. This source is beneficial because Mendezs strong quotes and research-

backed proposals that support my argument against the use of solitary confinement

could easily be included in my paper to incorporate ethos.