A Brief History of Solitary Confinement

Dickens, Tocqueville, and the U.N. all agree about this American invention: It’s torture.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway | Introduction to Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement | The New Press | February 2016 | 20 minutes (5,288 words)


Below is Jean Casella and James Ridgeway‘s introduction to Hell Is a Very Small Place, the collection of first-person accounts of solitary confinement which they edited together with Sarah Shourdas recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. 

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Imagine you’re locked in the cell, and don’t know if you’ll ever get out.

Imagine a corridor flanked by closed, windowless cells. Each cell may be so small that, inside, you can extend your arms and touch both walls at the same time. The cell contains a bunk, perhaps a solid block of poured concrete, with a thin plastic mattress, a stainless steel toilet, maybe a small table and stool. A few personal possessions—books, paper and pencil, family photos—may be permitted, or they may not. The door to the cell is solid steel.

Imagine you’re locked in the cell, and don’t know if you’ll ever get out. Three times a day, a food tray slides in through a slot in the door; when that happens, you may briefly see a hand, or exchange a few words with a guard. It is your only human contact for the day. A few times a week, you are allowed an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced or walled yard about the same size as your cell. The yard is empty and the walls block your view, but if you look straight up, you can catch a glimpse of sky.

Imagine that a third to a half of the people who live in this place suffer from serious mental illness. Some entered the cells with underlying psychiatric disabilities, while others have been driven mad by the isolation. Some of them scream in desperation all day and night. Others cut themselves, or smear their cells with feces. A number manage to commit suicide in their cells.

You may remain in this place for months, years, or even decades. UN officials and a host of human rights, civil liberties, and religious groups have denounced as torture the conditions in which you live, and yet you remain where you are.

This place is located not in some distant authoritarian nation or secret black site abroad, but here on American soil. In fact, places like it exist in every state in the union, many within sight of cities and towns. On any given day in the United States, supermax prisons and solitary confinement units hold at least eighty thousand men, women, and children in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation, without work, rehabilitative programming, or meaningful human contact of any kind.

These individuals live out of sight and, to most, out of mind. The conditions of their confinement have, with a few exceptions, been condoned by the courts and ignored by elected officials. As a result, over the past three decades, the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has grown into one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues—yet until recently, it has also remained one of the most invisible.

Those who endure solitary have long been buried, nameless and voiceless, in the dark heart of the American criminal justice system. Their experiences take place within the context of the history of solitary confinement in the United States, its present-day workings, and the costs borne by both the human beings who endure it and the society that countenances its continued use.

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It does not reform, it kills.

Accounts of people confined alone in dungeons or towers abound in stories dating back to ancient times. But solitary confinement as a self-conscious, organized, and widespread prison practice originated in the United States, and was born soon after the nation itself.

In 1790, the Walnut Street Jail, named for the Philadelphia street on which it stood, was expanded to hold the growing prison population of a burgeoning city. The expansion included the addition of a new kind of cellblock where sixteen individuals were held in single cells, built in such a way as to prevent communication with one another. The individuals held in these cells were not put to work, but were left alone in their cells to contemplate their crimes and, if all went as planned, become “penitent”—thus the name of the new block, Penitentiary House.

This innovation took place under the influence of a group calling itself the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which met for the first time in 1787 at the home of Benjamin Franklin. The Society was populated largely by Quakers, who believed in punishment for crimes, but also believed that all human beings were capable of redemption. They saw the new regime offered at Penitentiary House as a kinder and more effective alternative to more viscerally cruel punishments such as flogging, the public humiliations of the pillory and stocks, and the misery of filthy, violent, overcrowded jails.

Michel Foucault argues that the desire to treat those convicted of criminal offenses more “humanely” was rooted not only in Enlightenment ideas but also in the shifting power structures brought on by political and industrial revolutions. Early prison reforms served a pragmatic as well as a moral purpose, replacing the arbitrary and violent punishments of sovereigns with a more controlled and technocratic system of punishments befitting public power.

The new approach spread quickly. At Auburn Prison in upstate New York in 1821, eighty people were placed in solitary confinement in a new wing. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, in their 1833 treatise on U.S. penitentiaries, described the result:

In order to reform them, [the convicts] had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.

The unfortunates on whom this experiment was made fell into a state of depression so manifest that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger if they remained longer in this situation; five of them had already succumbed during a single year; their moral state was not less alarming; one of them had become insane; another, in a fit of despair, had embraced the opportunity, when the keeper brought him something, to precipitate himself from his cell, running the almost certain chance of a mortal fall.

Tocqueville and Beaumont also noted that “this system, fatal to the health of the criminals, was likewise inefficient in producing their reform” since upon release most reoffended within a short time. Within a few years, solitary confinement was abandoned at Auburn. Instead, men were put to work together during the days.

Nevertheless, in 1829, Pennsylvania opened Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, with an eventual capacity to hold two hundred fifty men and women in solitary confinement. Like today’s solitary cells, those at Eastern State had feeding slots in their doors and individual exercise yards to limit contact with both guards and other incarcerated individuals. On the rare occasions when they were moved outside, the occupants of these cells wore masks. They were allowed no reading material but the Bible, and they worked silently in their cells on such tasks as shoemaking or weaving.


A hood worn by prisoners in solitary confinement outside their cells, c. 1875. Via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the earliest—and still one of the most eloquent—critics of solitary confinement was Charles Dickens, who visited Eastern State Penitentiary on his tour of the United States in 1842. Dickens walked the prison’s hallways, which he described as shrouded in an “awful” silence, and visited with several of the “penitents,” whom he called men “buried alive” and cut off from “the living world.” The writer concluded:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature.

I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

As the observations made by foreign visitors were increasingly validated over time, what had come to be called the Pennsylvania System was all but entirely replaced by the Auburn System of communal hard labor. While most prisons maintained some version of “the hole,” where individuals were placed for short-term punishment or separation, through the late nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, long-term isolation existed only in exceptional cases. The so-called Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, was sentenced in 1916 to life in solitary only as a condition of the commutation of his death sentence for murdering a prison guard—and at Alcatraz he occupied a relatively roomy open-fronted cell, where he reportedly played checkers with guards through the bars.

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From 1995 to 2000, the number of individuals held in solitary increased by 40 percent.

The heir to Alcatraz was the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, which opened in 1963, the same year the notorious island prison was closed. Marion was built to hold “difficult to control” men in the federal prison system, and over the next decade it evolved into the “end of the line” prison for individuals deemed dangerous or disruptive. In 1973, H-Unit at Marion was officially designated the Long-Term Control Unit, with all those held in the unit subjected to around-the-clock solitary confinement and a “behavior modification” program. In the ensuing years, the federal Bureau of Prisons floated several proposals to turn the entire prison into a control unit.

On October 22, 1983, in two separate incidents, two corrections officers at Marion were killed by men held in the Control Unit. Although the perpetrators were immediately identified, the entire prison was placed on lockdown—and essentially, never taken off—and the supermax prison was born.

While the Marion lockdown may have provided the model for modern-day solitary confinement on a broad scale, a number of factors, all of them closely linked to the rise of mass incarceration, provided the impetus. These included, first and foremost, a rapid growth in incarceration rates due to increased criminalization of behavior, lengthening sentences, and the widespread elimination or diminution of parole. The United States now incarcerates approximately one in one hundred adults, a rate that significantly outpaces Russia and China and dwarfs all European nations.

During the same period, beginning in the late 1970s, prisons largely abandoned any notion of rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the United States was undergoing a massive shift toward the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness. They were supposed to receive treatment and support in the community once they left psychiatric hospitals, but such services were grossly lacking.

These developments led to extreme prison overcrowding, and with it, a rise in prison violence. Because they had abandoned faith in rehabilitation, prison administrators’ only remaining strategy was to crack down harder, piling punishment upon punishment, and more extreme confinement on top of confinement.


Pelican Bay State Prison. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of units or whole prisons designed for “total control” rapidly gained traction. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison in the remote redwood forests. The now notorious 1994 Crime Bill provided $9.7 billion in funding to build new prisons, and many states used their federal grants to build control units or entire supermax prisons. Ten years later, through a period of decreasing crime rates, forty-four states and the federal government had constructed supermaxes housing approximately 25,000 people in extreme isolation. In 1993, Dr. Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of solitary confinement, wrote:

Because of the technological spin that they put on institutional design and procedure, the new super-maximum security prisons are unique in the modern history of American corrections. These prisons represent the application of sophisticated, modern technology dedicated entirely to the task of social control, and they isolate, regulate, and surveil more effectively than anything that has preceded them.

Nearly every prison and jail in the country also developed a solitary confinement unit of some kind. In the five-year period from 1995 to 2000 alone, the number of individuals held in solitary increased by 40 percent, and by 2005—the most recent year for which figures are available—a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics census of state and federal prisoners found more than 81,622 people held in “restricted housing.” The census figures do not include individuals in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, immigrant detention centers, or local jails; if they did, the numbers would certainly be higher, likely exceeding one hundred thousand.

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Reasons ranging from ‘failing to speak English when able,’ watching the Spanish channel on television, trying to translate for another detainee… and playing cards instead of attending church services.

Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating people in closed cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods of time ranging from days to decades. Solitary confinement cells generally measure from six by nine to eight by ten feet. Some have bars, but more often they have solid metal doors. Many do not have windows. Meals generally come through slots in these doors, as do any communications with prison staff. There may be showers within the cells, or inhabitants may be taken, in shackles, to shower two or three times a week. They may also be escorted to a fenced or walled yard for an hour of exercise, usually only on weekdays, or they may be released into an area adjoining their cells through a remote-controlled door. Most, although not all, will be permitted to have books as well as legal papers, and to send and receive letters. Some may be allowed visits, usually through a Plexiglas barrier. A few may have radio or television.

Few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement” to describe this kind of incarceration, instead referring to prison “segregation.” Most systems make a distinction between various reasons for solitary confinement. “Disciplinary segregation” or “punitive segregation” is time spent in solitary as punishment for violating prison rules, and usually lasts from several weeks to several years. “Administrative segregation” relies on a system of classification rather than actual behavior, and often constitutes a permanent placement, extending from years to decades. “Involuntary protective custody” is especially common among children in adult prisons, LGBTQ individuals, and others deemed at risk of victimization at the hands of other prisoners, who live in indefinite isolation despite having done nothing wrong.

Cells, tiers, and prisons designed for the purpose of isolation are known by a series of euphemisms that vary from state to state, including Special Housing Units, Security Housing Units, Special Management Units, Intensive Management Units, and Behavioral Management Units. To the people who inhabit them, they are the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), the Box, the Hole, the Bing, or the Block.

Far from a measure of last resort reserved for the “worst of the worst,” as many proponents claim, solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in most prisons and jails. Today, incarcerated people can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband—including excess quantities of pencils or postage stamps—testing positive for drug use, or using profanity. In New York, about 85 percent of the thirteen thousand terms in disciplinary segregation handed down each year are for nonviolent misbehavior. The system is arbitrary, largely unmonitored, and ripe for abuse; individuals have been sent to solitary for filing complaints about their treatment or for reporting rape or brutality by guards.


Walled prison yards for prisoners in solitary. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In California, for example, the California Code of Regulations, Title 15 Section 3315, outlines two dozen “Serious Rule Violations” that can result in placement in the SHU. These include “Possession of five dollars or more without authorization,” “Tattooing or possession of tattoo paraphernalia,” “Participation in a strike or work stoppage,” and “Self mutilation or attempted suicide for the purpose of manipulation.”

About half of the people held in California SHUs may have committed no offense at all; instead, they are held in solitary because of the gang “validation” process, in which anyone deemed an active gang member is sent to an initial six-year term in the SHU, which can be extended to decades. Gang validation can take place based in large part on anonymous accusations. Commonly, these anonymous charges come from validated individuals in the SHU, for whom the only hope for early release has been summarized as “parole, snitch, or die.” People have also been suspected of gang membership simply by possessing the book The Art of War or making reference to prison activist George Jackson.

While reliable data on the use of solitary confinement according to race is scarce, sampling indicates that African Americans are even more overrepresented in solitary confinement than they are in the prison system in general. Muslims charged with terrorism-related offenses, including vague “material support” charges, are likely to land in extreme solitary confinement both pretrial and post-conviction. Others with radical political beliefs—especially racial minorities such as members of the Black Panther Party or the Black Liberation Army—are often classified as safety risks and placed in administrative segregation indefinitely.

Over the past thirty years, in the wake of deinstitutionalization, prisons and jails have become the nation’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers. The Treatment Advocacy Center estimated that in 2012, more than 350,000 people with serious mental illness were housed in prisons and jails, while a tenth as many—about 35,000—were in state mental hospitals. Many enter prison on relatively minor charges, then rack up additional charges as they act out because of untreated illness, and end up spending a lifetime cycling in and out of jail. Solitary confinement cells, in particular, are now used to warehouse thousands of people with mental illness, as well as people with developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and substance addictions. Human Rights Watch estimated, based on available state data, that one-third to one-half of those held in isolation had some form of mental illness.

Children under the age of eighteen are not excluded from solitary confinement.* In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that juveniles placed in adult prisons and jails are disproportionately likely to land in disciplinary segregation because of immature misbehavior, or to be held in involuntary protective custody. A 2012 report on youth solitary published by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that “in 2011, more than 95,000 youth were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement—for days, weeks, months, or even years—to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people who are held there.”

People who are LGBTQ also find themselves isolated “for their own protection.” Yet they find anything but safety while in solitary. One investigation of transgender women held in men’s prisons in New York State found that most had experienced prolonged solitary confinement, and many had been subjected to rape and other sexual abuse by prison staff while in isolation.

Even migrants held in detention in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, whose only alleged crime is crossing the border, are frequently held in solitary confinement. With even less oversight than prisons and jails in general, ICE facilities, many of which are privately run, have placed individuals in solitary for reasons ranging from “failing to speak English when able,” watching the Spanish channel on television, trying to translate for another detainee, complaining about the quality of the drinking water, having an extra blanket, and playing cards instead of attending church services, according to a 2012 report.

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The tens of thousands of Americans in solitary confinement have not been sent there by judges or juries.

Even within the purely punitive model of incarceration, people are supposed to be sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. According to the law, deprivation of freedom alone is supposed to be the price society exacts for crimes committed. The additional suffering that happens inside prison—whether it is violence and brutality, rape, or solitary confinement—can therefore be seen as extrajudicial punishment. Solitary, in particular, operates as a “second sentence,” or a “sentence within a sentence,” doled out without benefit of due process.

The tens of thousands of Americans in solitary confinement have been sent there not by judges or juries, who by design have little to say about what happens to people once they pass through the prison gates. Instead, they are condemned to isolation based on a “classification” that is handed down by prison officials. Or they are sent to solitary following charges of misconduct that are levied, adjudicated, and enforced by prison officials.


Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Many prison systems have a hearing process, but such hearings are seldom more than perfunctory. Prison officials serve as prosecutors, judges, and juries, and the incarcerated are rarely permitted representation by defense attorneys. Unsurprisingly, in most prison systems, they are nearly always found guilty.

Few people in American society have as much unrestrained control over the fates of other people as do prison wardens. The United States has virtually none of the checks and balances found in most European societies—no prison ombudsperson, no inspector of the prisons, no independent monitoring bodies made up of ordinary citizens with access to prisons. Incarcerated people themselves have been disempowered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a 1996 law limiting their ability to sue in federal courts. To mount a successful lawsuit against prison conditions, individuals must first exhaust the prison’s internal grievance procedures—often at risk of retaliation by prison guards—and then must show that they suffered significant “physical injury.” Despite evidence of the extensive damage it causes, long-term solitary confinement has been deemed not to meet the physical injury requirement under the PLRA.

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What does it mean to share the world with millions of people in cages?

The complete isolation and sensory deprivation of solitary confinement has been shown to cause a panoply of psychiatric symptoms, detailed in a briefing paper from the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project:

Research shows that some of the clinical impacts of isolation can be similar to those of physical torture. People subjected to solitary confinement exhibit a variety of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli; perceptual distortions and hallucinations; increased anxiety and nervousness; revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger; fears of persecution; lack of impulse control; severe and chronic depression; appetite loss and weight loss; heart palpitations; withdrawal; blunting of affect and apathy; talking to oneself; headaches; problems sleeping; confusing thought processes; nightmares; dizziness; self-mutilation; and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days in solitary confinement.

The body of evidence showing that these effects are ubiquitous and lasting—even permanent—is constantly growing.37 And it is increasingly bolstered by studies of the neuroscience of isolation’s effects. What solitary confinement does to the brain was the subject of a panel at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where University of Michigan neuroscientist Huda Akil noted that the effects of lack of physical activity, of interaction with other human beings and with the natural world, of visual stimulation, and of touch have all been studied in both humans and other animals. “Each one,” she said, “is by itself sufficient to change the brain, and change it dramatically, depending on whether it lasts briefly or is extended. And by extended I mean days, not decades.

In dire cases, solitary confinement leads to extremes of self-mutilation, and the rates of suicide in solitary far exceed anything found in general prison populations. One study of the New York City jail population found incidences of self-harm were seven times higher among individuals held in solitary confinement. While 7 percent of the jail population was held in isolation, 53 percent of all acts of self-harm took place there, ranging from cutting to banging heads against walls to suicide attempts. Others held in solitary have gone as far as self-amputations of fingers and testicles, even self-blinding. Likewise, about 50 percent of incarcerated people who take their own lives do so while in isolation. The challenges of suicide in a bare cell have driven some to such acts as jumping headfirst off their bunks and biting through the veins in their wrists.

Considering the damage it wreaks upon body and soul, it is hardly surprising that solitary confinement is associated with higher recidivism rates, particularly when people are released back into the community directly from solitary confinement. Several of the writers included in this book describe their difficulties reintegrating into society—being in crowded places, relating to other people, or simply being touched. In several instances, release directly from solitary has been linked to extreme violence, as in the case of Evan Ebel, who killed two people in Colorado—including, with tragic irony, Corrections Director Tom Clements, who had worked to reduce the use of isolation in the state’s prisons.

In addition, despite claims to the contrary, solitary confinement does not reduce levels of violence in prison. A study published in 2015 found that short-term disciplinary segregation had no measurable effect on violent behavior in Texas prisons. Other evidence suggests that violence levels actually drop significantly with decreases in the use of solitary confinement.45 One study found that far more assaults on guards took place in isolation units than in the general prison population. A veteran Oregon corrections officer told a commission studying the use of prison segregation that solitary “creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality on both sides,” while a Mississippi warden testified: “The environment . . . actually increases the levels of hostility and anger among inmates and staff alike.”


Solitary confinement cells at Alcatraz. Via Flickr.

In addition to its public safety costs, solitary confinement carries a high price tag for taxpayers. Nationally, it has been estimated that the average cost of a year in a supermax prison is $75,000—two to three times the cost of housing someone in general population.47 According to one calculation, in 2010–11 California spent at least $175 million in additional costs per year to house some twelve thousand individuals in isolation. Solitary confinement has also been associated with significantly higher construction costs per cell. For example, Wisconsin’s Boscobel supermax facility was built to house five hundred people at a cost of $47.5 million in 1990 dollars, or more than $95,000 per bed.

More difficult to calculate are the human costs not only to those who suffer in solitary, but to the rest of us in free society. “What does it mean,” Lisa Guenther asks in this volume, “to share the world with millions of people in cages?” How does it affect our humanity to dehumanize others to such an extent that we allow them to live in conditions unfit for any animal—and do so in the name of our own safety and well-being?

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Supermax prisons and solitary units themselves are virtual domestic black sites, resolutely off limits to the public and the press.

Until quite recently, solitary confinement was the most pressing domestic human rights crisis that most Americans had never heard of. In the past several years, however, the issue has entered the consciousness of a large cross-section of Americans for the first time.

In 2008, advocates from across the country gathered to address solitary confinement at a conference hosted by the American Friends Service Committee. In 2009, the New Yorker published a seminal article on solitary, “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande, who joined a small group of dedicated journalists in pioneering coverage of the subject. Solitary Watch, which we founded the same year, had the aim of bringing the issue “out of the shadows and into the light of the public square.”

In 2010, the Vera Institute of Justice began its Segregation Reduction Project, working with states to decrease the numbers of people they held in solitary. The American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project also convened a meeting of its state affiliates and other legal advocates, and in 2011 it launched its “Stop Solitary” campaign involving education, litigation, and legislation. The National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT) likewise launched a new initiative focused on torture in U.S. prisons and jails, organizing faith-based groups across the country.

On July 1, 2011, men held in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison—some for as long as two or three decades—went on a hunger strike to protest their conditions. It was to be the first such hunger strike, with the third, held in 2013, drawing some thirty thousand participants in California prisons at its height, and lasting two months. A class-action lawsuit, mounted by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of men at Pelican Bay, followed and eventually led to a settlement that would release nearly two thousand from solitary.

In August 2011, Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, produced a comprehensive report on the use of solitary confinement and made a series of strong recommendations that, if effected, would end virtually all prolonged solitary around the globe—“prolonged” defined as lasting beyond fifteen days. Méndez became a dedicated, high-profile opponent of the use of prison isolation in the United States. He made repeated requests to the U.S. government to conduct fact-finding visits to American state and federal supermax prisons, all of which were denied or ignored.

In 2012, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held the first-ever congressional hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences,” which drew written testimony from close to one hundred advocacy groups and individuals and led to an internal audit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ use of “segregated housing.”

By 2015, dozens of pieces of legislation had been introduced placing new limits on the use of solitary confinement and a few had been passed. Several states had instituted policy reforms leading to reductions in the numbers of individuals held in solitary confinement, particularly children and people with mental illness. Movements to end solitary confinement have sprung up in many states, and personages no less than Pope Francis and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have voiced their concerns about the practice.

In July 2015, in a wide-ranging speech on criminal justice reform, President Barack Obama announced that he had directed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to “start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.” The president continued, “Social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent. Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometime for years at a time? That is not going to make us safer.”

But for all this activity, the numbers of people in solitary do not appear to have dwindled by more than a few thousand, out of tens of thousands. And reforms that remove some individuals from solitary, distinguishing between those who “belong” in isolation and those who do not, risk driving some people deeper into the hole.

Opponents of solitary also contend with the fact that data on the use of solitary confinement is thin. Supermax prisons and solitary units themselves are virtual domestic black sites, resolutely off limits to the public and the press. The only fully realized reports of what goes on in these places are provided by the people who inhabit them, or who have survived time in solitary. Yet theirs are often the last voices to be listened to, on the premise that people in prison cannot be trusted and their stories cannot be believed.

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This excerpt originally appeared in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, published by The New Press, and is used here with permission.


*Footnote: In January 2016, President Obama announced a ban on holding juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons. [Return to where you left off.]