Reviews | Solitary confinement is torture. US prisons should stop using it.


Imagine spending most of the day locked in a small windowless room. There’s little to no natural light, no meaningful human interaction, and nothing to break the monotony of being alone. No wonder Nelson Mandela describe isolation as “the most forbidding aspect of prison life”. This grotesque practice is a form of torture, all too common in the United States.

Fortunately, that could change. A new investigation of the Correctional Leaders Association and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School found that solitary confinement – which it defines as keeping a person in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day for 15 days or more – is much less used in US prisons. Extrapolating from data from 34 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the report estimates that between 41,000 and 48,000 people in prison were subjected to this treatment in the summer of 2021. In 2014, when the organizations conducted the survey for the first time, this estimate was 80,000 to 100,000.

That thousands fewer people have to endure these conditions every year is something to celebrate. Solitary confinement causes unimaginable psychological trauma and tracks at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and psychosis. Thanks to the persistent work of advocates and survivors, more Americans are aware of its harms: 2021 survey by the University of Maryland’s public consultation program found that 5 out of 6 voters think solitary confinement should be significantly restricted. This sentiment undoubtedly played a role in reducing the use of this cruel and unusual punishment.

Yet too many Americans are still being held in “restricted” or “segregated” housing. According to the report, almost a quarter of those placed in solitary confinement have been kept in solitary confinement for more than a year. Black women are disproportionately placed in these settings. And although conditions vary by prison and system, many intolerable practices persist; for example, 10 jurisdictions reported that the lights were left on in these cells overnight. Such rules further dehumanize people.

Since 2018, more than 25 states have introduced legislation to restrict the use of solitary confinement. NYC Halt Actentered into force in April, prohibited “separate confinement” (more than 17 hours a day) for people with disabilities and people under 21 or over 55. It also limits how long people can be held in solitary confinement. Connecticut and Colorado have passed recent measures, and a bill in California has been passed by the state legislature Last week.

This progress is encouraging but piecemeal — and would benefit from federal leadership. As presidential candidate Joe Biden promised end “the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions”. This is the right goal; there are cases where physical separation is necessary to ensure the safety of an inmate, for example. But it should be a rare last resort, and under conditions that limit, rather than increase, the toll of isolation.

In May, Mr. Biden directed Attorney General Merrick Garland will report on Justice Department policies aimed at ensuring that “restrictive accommodation in federal custodial facilities is rarely used, fairly enforced, and subject to reasonable restraints.” This should be just the first step in a wider campaign to drastically reduce this inhumane practice.

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