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February 26, 2014

Lots of recent (and long-overdue) new concerns about solitary confinement

Long-time readers know I have bemaoning the enduring use and reliance on extreme solitary confinement in many penal instututions for many years.  Indeed, in some of my posts here and here from 2006 on this issue, during a time when constitutional litigation over lethal injection protocols was just getting revved up, I made assertions here and elsewhere that persons truly concerned about both human dignity and public safety ought to focus a lot more on the tens of thousands of humans in Supermax facilities and subject to long periods of solitary confinement than on the many fewer humans on (much nicer) death rows.  And while it seems there has been remarkably limited progress on the lethal injection front over the last decade, recent developments suggest that extreme solitary confinement is finally getting the attention and criticisms it deserves.

Thanks in large part to this Senate hearing conducted yesterday under the title "Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences," both the old and new media have too many new pieces on this topic to provide a comprehensive accounting of what's now afoot on this front.  Here are a few highlights from various sources and with telling headlines that help sketch the direction of the modern discussion:

From the Smithsonian magazine here, "The Science of Solitary Confinement: Research tells us that isolation is an ineffective rehabilitation strategy and leaves lasting psychological damage"

From the New York Times op-ed pages here, "My Night in Solitary"

From The Atlantic here, "Colorado's Prison Director Spent 20 Hours in Solitary — But That's Not Enough"

From NPR here, "N.Y. Becomes Largest Prison System To Curb Solitary Confinement"

From the AP here, Feds say Pa. prisons misuse solitary confinement"

From Slate here, "The Definitive Case for Ending Solitary Confinement; The practice is impractical as well as immoral. It harms prisoners, costs too much, and leads to more crime.

February 26, 2014 at 06:00 PM | Permalink


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As I've said so many times before (if anyone cares) it is true that solitary confinement is terrible and even psychologically damaging, but until someone comes-up with a realistic solution for managing extremely aggressive inmates, it's all just hand-waving without solving the problem.

Posted by: Steve Erickson | Feb 26, 2014 7:55:34 PM

Still, it's a good thing that someone is at least waving their hands. Hopefully it will inspire people to at least think a bit more and come up with a better approach. John McCain is not one of my favorite public figures, but he said something I value highly: It's not about who they are; it's about who we are. I strive to be better at responding to a situation than the people condemned for their response.

Posted by: Just Sayin' | Feb 26, 2014 9:36:53 PM

Not rehab. Incapacitation for the safety of prisoners and staff. Here is why the left wing traitor lawyer opposes it. What is the alternative to managing ultra-vicious predators? Human supervision, baby sitting by 2 guards three shifts a day, that is an extra $400 a shift to worthless government make work. Do that 300 days, and you have generated $360,000 for the government worker, for each of these vicious predators. That is the real motivation behind the phony hand wringing about vicious predators.

This is very repetitive. Not a word about the victims of these vicious predators.

No evidence of mental deterioration from solitary. at http://www.jaapl.org/content/41/1/49.long

A longitudinal study of administrative segregation.

The use of administrative segregation for inmates with and without mental illness has generated considerable criticism. Segregated inmates are locked in single cells for 23 hours per day, are subjected to rigorous security procedures, and have restricted access to programs. In this study, we examined whether inmates in segregation would show greater deterioration over time on psychological symptoms than would comparison offenders. The subjects were male inmates, with and without mental illness, in administrative segregation, general population, or special-needs prison. Subjects completed the Brief Symptom Inventory at regular intervals for one year. Results showed differentiation between groups at the outset and statistically significant but small positive change over time across all groups. All groups showed the same change pattern such that there was not the hypothesized differential change of inmates within administrative segregation. This study advances the empirical research, but replication research is needed to make a better determination of whether and under what conditions harm may or may not occur to inmates in solitary confinement.

A critical review is supportive.


I favor the lash, starting with the vile feminist, pro-criminal lawyer traitors on the bench. bossing people doing a job they know nothing about. To deter.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 26, 2014 9:48:39 PM

I have a quick and easy solution. If an individual is dangerous enough to require solitary. Prove it to a judge and get a sentence with the understanding that any further problems will result in a bullet to the back of the head.

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 26, 2014 11:44:39 PM

I was in ad seg (solitary) , for 2 months straight. Some can handle it for a certain amount of time, some less than 24 hours. I was at my limit. You seriously start to make friends with ants. Arguably worst is the freezing temperature (I have no idea why it is kept so cold) and the screaming and kicking doors of inmates that cant handle it.

If they gave you access to an in cell TV like they do in some max facilities it might not be so terrible, but you are completely separate from the world in there as it stands.

Posted by: CS | Feb 27, 2014 2:52:59 AM

There would be no controversy if we had 123D. All ultra-violent predators would have been deceased prior to reaching age 18. There would be no crime because the criminals would be gone. Instead, the lawyer internal traitor has protected them, to generate worthless government make work jobs. So, instead, we lose 15,000 murder victims a year, plus 5 million victims of violent crime each year.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 27, 2014 4:48:38 AM


I agree that there is a challenge managing extremely aggressive inmates. But one of the issues with the explosion in the use of solitary is that in some systems supermax conditions are applied across the board to certain inmates, often based on the type of crime they were convicted of, even if there is no evidence that they are aggressive/violent in a prison setting. This is the low hanging fruit -- get folks out of solitary or solitary-like conditions where there is no valid/evidence-based reason to think they pose a special risk for violence.

The litigation around lethal injection is being done by lawyers who represent people facing execution. They have to advocate for the client. If the State says we are going to kill you but we won't tell you how (which drugs, where we got the drugs, etc.), or we will tell you how and it turns out that actual doctors think that procedure is risky, then they litigate. The movement around the solitary issue seems to have more institutional involvement (law schools, non-profits, non-lawyers doing policy advocacy, journalists), rather than coming out of individual lawyer-client relationships. (Which makes sense because once you make it to solitary you usually don't have a lawyer anymore.) I think you are talking apples and oranges and creating a false dichotomy between using resources to challenge lethal injection vs. solitary. I don't think that's accurate. I think different folks are doing different things for different reasons, and to the extent the movement against solitary took a while to catch on, I don't think it was because folks were busy with lethal injection.

Posted by: anon | Feb 27, 2014 9:25:08 AM

Steve Erickson is 100% correct.

Solitary is not about rehab. It is not even about punishment. It is about providing safety/security to staff and other inmates.

Anon stated: "some systems supermax conditions are applied across the board to certain inmates, often based on the type of crime they were convicted of, even if there is no evidence that they are aggressive/violent in a prison setting."

Generally, inmates are classified by security and counselors as they enter the system based on selective criteria. They do not say, "Murders/rapists/ect. go into solitary." They look at the specifics of the crime, the inmate's background (e.g. gang kingpin?)and then make the determination. For instance, you can make a pretty good case that a 35 year old man with a history of raping 16-20 year old boys/men may be a good candidate for solitary despite never raping someone in prison.

Prison administration is assaulted with 100s of very difficult decisions every day and it is easy for people with no background to play Monday morning QB. The same lawyer suing because the 35 year old was put in isolation without committing a prison infraction would also sue if he was left in gen pop and raped three younger inmates. Only the name under "Plaintiff" would be different.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 27, 2014 10:21:30 AM

"Solitary Confinement" is a really antiquated idea. Can't we do better? Correction agencies should adopt graduated Deprivation Decision-Making Systems that deal with both accountability and risk control. Systems of this kind afford due process when there is a question about moving offenders from one deprivation level to another.

Obviously some offenders should be confined securely. Just be smarter about it. Think about cost-effectiveness and being fair.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Feb 27, 2014 1:04:13 PM

@Tom McGee-There already is due process if an inmate's security classification is changed.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 27, 2014 1:25:59 PM

The "sticks" correctional agencies have to manage offenders have been reduced (in some cases rightly) by prisoner rights advocates. For example, the loaf has been discussed here previously and was recently before the Supreme Court. Inmates can be put on the loaf for misusing utensils and cups to assault staff or for flinging food. However, they cannot be put on the loaf in lieu of segregation. They can't even be denied a hot meal in lieu of segregation. It used to be the case that for minor infractions inmates would be denied dessert. It worked pretty well. Some of these less serious punishments need to be brought back and utilized in the infractions process.

Posted by: RK | Feb 27, 2014 1:42:16 PM

I attended the hearing, and I'd encourage people to listen to the webcast and judge for themselves. You can get to the webcast from the link in Doug's second paragraph. The speakers in the second half, including Rick Raemisch, director of the Colorado Depsrtment of Corrections, explain that the main problem isn't the measured use of solitary for prisoners who engage in violent conduct in prison; it's the overuse and misuse of solitary. For example, Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black, testified that in her experience, women prisoners who are sexually assaulted by other inmates or by staff are usually afraid to report it because the prison administration will likely respond by putting the complainant into solitary. From the prison's perspective, that makes the problem (appear to) go away and restores the efficient running of the institution.

Posted by: arfarf | Feb 27, 2014 3:13:35 PM


No, what is needed is a "graduated" Deprivation Decision-Making System. The so-called sentencing revolution dumbed-down the process. For example, the correction agency where I worked had a three deprivation level disciplinary system at one time and was moving toward a six level all-purpose deprivation system when the sentencing revolution of the 1970's and 80's intervened. Greater care should be taken as the level of deprivation increases.

Prisons are just places where correction programs are operated; programs that are operated at several deprivation levels. Communities are also places where correction programs are operated at several different deprivation levels. Deprivations are the common denominators of aloo correction plans and programs, restraints, requirements and takings.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Feb 27, 2014 3:20:45 PM

There are many violent dangerous individuals in prison and solitary should always be a tool for safety etc. That said, security designations are capricious in many many situations.

There are non-violent inmates who have been held in high security USPs for years. They were not convicted of violent crimes and have never had a report since their incarceration. They are placed there simply based on the length of their sentence. The staff has no incentive to reduce the security designation. Reducing the number of inmates in high security impacts budgets and staffing.

I have also known of defendants who are exercising their 6th amendment right to trial in the federal system being placed in county facilities pre trial. This is done by claiming that this is the only available space. They are held in solitary, denied sleep, have restricted calorie intake, no sensory stimulation, once a week exercise alone in a small yard. no writing materials uncomfortable temperature control. This is done to defendents who are not charged with crimes of violence and have no violent priors.

I can only surmise that this kind of solitary is done with the hope that the defendant will decide not to exercise his (or her) right to trial and ask for a plea. This is just speculative, but there seems to be no other reason.

Posted by: beth | Feb 27, 2014 8:12:45 PM

Beth: If misuse takes place it should be investigated, subjected to litigation, and the malfeasors punished.

I am paraphrasing you in saying that misuse of a tool, should be answered by the ending of the misuse not of the tool.

So there are 30,000 fatal car crashes. Work hard to end car crashes, not cars.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 27, 2014 9:52:15 PM

SC - I agree. Unfortunately there is nothing to be litigated here. When you're in custody the authority for your security designation is given to the BOP.

Pre trial the decisions are made by the judge and prosecutors. They have great incentive not to have a trial. If you're nonviolent they can say that you're a flight risk.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but it is common.

Posted by: beth | Feb 27, 2014 10:40:51 PM

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