Imagine spending most of the day locked in a small windowless room. There is little to no natural light, no meaningful human interaction and nothing to break the monotony of being alone. No wonder Nelson Mandela described solitary confinement as “the most forbidding aspect of prison life.” This grotesque practice is a form of torture — one that is too common in the United States.
Thankfully, that might be changing. A new survey from the Correctional Leaders Association and Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law found that solitary confinement — which it defined as holding a person in isolation for at least 22 hours per day for 15 days or longer — is being used far less in U.S. 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 prisons were subject to this treatment in the summer of 2021. In 2014, when organizations first conducted the survey, that estimate was 80,000 to 100,000.
That thousands fewer people have to endure these conditions each year is something to be celebrated. Solitary confinement causes terrible psychological trauma and leads to increased risk of depression, anxiety and psychosis. Thanks to persistent work from advocates and survivors, more Americans are aware of its harms: A 2021 poll by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that 5 in 6 voters believe solitary confinement should be greatly restricted. This sentiment no doubt played a role in curtailing use of this cruel and unusual punishment.
Yet too many Americans are still held in “restricted” or “segregated” housing. According to the report, nearly a quarter of those in solitary confinement had been kept in isolation for more than a year. Black women are disproportionately placed in these settings. And while conditions vary by prison and system, many intolerable practices continue; for example, 10 jurisdictions reported that lights remained 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. New York’s Halt Act, which came into effect in April, prohibits “segregated confinement” (for more than 17 hours a day) for people with disabilities and those younger than 21 or older than 55. It also limits the duration people can be held in isolation. Connecticut and Colorado have enacted recent measures, and a bill in California passed the state legislature last week.
This progress is encouraging but piecemeal — and would benefit from federal leadership. As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to end “the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions.” That is the right goal; there are cases in which physical separation is necessary to ensure a prisoner’s safety, for example. But this should be a rare last resort, and in conditions that limit, rather than enhance, the toll of isolation.
In May, Mr. Biden directed Attorney General Merrick Garland to produce a report on the Justice Department’s policies to ensure “restrictive housing in Federal detention facilities is used rarely, applied fairly, and subject to reasonable constraints.” That should only be the first step in a broader push to drastically scale back this inhumane practice.
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