At many U.S. prisons and for too many years, the path of least resistance for disciplining unruly inmates has run directly to solitary confinement — and often it’s been a one-way trip. Prisoners who mouth off, smuggle contraband or get in fights are warehoused in windowless, parking spot-sized cells for all but an hour or two a day, kept in isolation and deprived of human contact for weeks, months or, not infrequently, years at a time.
Out of sight and little noticed by society, inmates in solitary confinement have inspired scant sympathy — though Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, suggesting he regarded their treatment as uncivilized, wrote that “near-total isolation exact[s] a terrible price.” Now, it seems, many of the people who run prisons have started to agree.
According to a new survey by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center at Yale Law School — the latest of three such studies since 2014 — the number of such inmates in state prisons, where most of America’s incarcerated population resides, is falling. When the prison systems were surveyed in 2013, it was estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were in solitary lockup. Last year, the number was pegged at roughly 61,000.
That’s a healthy drop in four years, equivalent to a decrease to about 4.4 percent from 5 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates in state and federal custody. (It does not include those held in isolation in locally run city and county jails, where another 740,000 inmates are held.) It appears to reflect a change in attitudes — in prison management as well as state legislatures — about best practices.
Such a shift is badly overdue. Holding prisoners in isolation for months and years is a form of prolonged psychological torture — a fact recognized by the United Nations in 2015 when it adopted the so-called Nelson Mandela rules for the treatment of prisoners, which prohibit solitary confinement for periods exceeding 15 consecutive days. The following year, the American Correctional Association issued guidelines limiting solitary confinement for several groups including prisoners with serious mental illness, who constitute a substantial minority of inmates. Those moves prompted some administrators to tighten standards and shorten the duration of solitary confinement, particularly by establishing clear criteria for release.
Progress is far from uniform. Between the reports issued in 2016 and 2018, the numbers of inmates in solitary confinement declined in more than two dozen states, but increased in 11 other states. Colorado has all but eliminated solitary confinement; in Louisiana, nearly 20 percent of the state’s 14,300 male inmates were locked away in solitary cells almost round the clock. Nearly everywhere, black inmates are overrepresented among those in solitary, and whites are underrepresented. In Texas, more than 2,100 inmates have been locked away for more than three years; of those, more than 1,300 have been in solitary for more than six years. Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also lock prisoners away for years at a time with jaw-dropping frequency.
That’s an indication that much more reform is needed. Inmates who have been warehoused in solitary confinement are prone to emerge damaged and ill-equipped to reenter society. That’s a practical concern; it’s also an affront to human decency.