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Report Offers Rare Data On Solitary Confinement In United States

A new report provides a rare view of “current comprehensive data on the use of restricted housing,” which is more commonly known as solitary confinement.

Released by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and Yale Law Schools’ Liman Program, the report, “Aiming To Reduce Time-In-Cell,” outlines efforts undertaken by various jurisdictions to curtail the use of isolation and “reform the conditions in which isolated prisoners are held.”

The survey was sent to corrections officials at the state and federal level. Forty-eight out of 53 jurisdictions responded with most of the data requested, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 45 state prison systems, Washington D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

Overall, the report acknowledges the emerging consensus on solitary confinement, stating, “Health professionals, social scientists, and organizations concerned with prisoner well- being have likewise detailed the harms of isolating confinement and have argued that the practice lacks utility. In addition, empirical work has found that solitary confinement has not been effective in reducing violence and promoting safety.”

Research and journalism produced in recent years documented the results of “disabling isolation” for prisoners and staff and whether it ensured the safety of communities to which individuals returned. It, therefore, offers a portrait of solitary confinement since several local and state governments implemented reforms.

In the fall of 2015, 67,442 people were locked in a cell for at least 22 hours a day, for 15 continuous days or more. Another 16,455 were reportedly “held in conditions that were also restricted, but not as limiting” as continuous 22 hours a day confinement.

At least 83,897 people were held in isolation for more than 16 hours per day for 15 days or more.

Some states hold thousands of people in isolation. Texas reported 5,832 people in solitary for over 22 hours a day for 15 days or more. In New York, 4,498 people are in the same situation. (Note: States like these are quite large and have similarly large prison systems, which help to explain why their numbers are so high. However, this does not change the fact that several thousand people are being subject to these conditions and treatment.)

In California, 8,329 people or 7.1 percent of its total prison population, are in some form of isolation. Washington, D.C. has 8.2 percent of prison population in isolation, Indiana has 9.1 percent in isolation, and roughly 11 percent of Nebraska and New Mexico’s prison population is in isolation. In Louisiana and Utah, 14.5 percent and 15 percent of the prison population is in isolation respectively.

Florida reported 3,254 people in solitary for between one and three months. Louisiana held 671 people in solitary confinement for between one and six years. New Jersey has 420 people in solitary for at least one year and 108 people have been in isolation for six years or more.

In Texas, 4,705 people were isolated for at least a year, and 1,587 were there for six years or more.

Across all jurisdictions surveyed, 7,152 people were said to have been in solitary for one to three years; 2,956 people for three to six years; and 2,933 people for six years or more. Most often, prisoners spent between one and three months in isolation.

While most people think of solitary confinement as being locked in a cell alone, a significant number are locked in with a cellmate. Out of 47 jurisdictions, 26 reported housing prisoners in double cells, sometimes called Security Management Units or Special Management Units (SMUs).

The survey found 17,460 incarcerated people are held in double cells. Five jurisdictions reported they housed prisoners in double cells but “were not able to provide a number.”

Researchers found black men were 45 percent of the restricted housing population, despite being 40 percent of all male prisoners across jurisdictions. One hundred percent of women in restricted housing in Delaware and Washington were black. In Mississippi’s isolation units, 80 percent of women are black. On the whole, black women constituted 24 percent of the total female incarcerated population but 41 percent of women in restricted housing.

Out of 754 transgender prisoners reported in 33 jurisdictions, 55 (7.3 percent) were reported to be housed in restricted housing.

Just over 54,000 incarcerated men are reported to have serious mental health issues in general population. A little more than 5,000 incarcerated men with serious mental health issues are in isolation. As for female prisoners, 9,573 incarcerated women with serious mental health issues are in general population, and 297 female prisoners with serious mental health issues are in isolation.

In Florida, 12.3 percent of seriously mentally ill incarcerated men are in solitary, as are 13.5 percent in Idaho, 14.7 percent in Kansas, and 38.7 percent in Louisiana. In Louisiana, 13.1 percent of incarcerated women in solitary have a serious mental illness. Similarly, 11.8 percent of seriously mentally ill incarcerated women in South Dakota and 13.9 percent in Utah are in solitary.

There is no single universal definition for what constitutes “serious mental illness” across jurisdictions so a prisoner who may be considered seriously mentally ill in one jurisdiction might not be considered seriously mentally ill in another jurisdiction.

During 2011, Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances. Mendez called for time limits and prohibitions on placing juveniles and people with mental disabilities in isolation. He declared indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days to be torture, and called for a prohibition on such use.

President Barack Obama’s administration adopted similar rules in the federal system for solitary confinement and encouraged state and local jurisdictions to adopt similar guidelines, which sought to reduce the number of people in isolation by carving out specific populations defined as “vulnerable,” such as juveniles, pregnant women, and the mentally ill.

The Obama administration argued solitary should be used as a last resort and officials should limit the amount of time a prisoner spends in isolation.

Read Part 2: “Deconstructing Flaws In Important New Report On Solitary Confinement” for an analysis of the report’s methodology and the difficulty in getting a full picture of solitary confinement in the US.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.