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Progress in Five Minutes: Ending Solitary Confinement

While prisons have been increasingly designed for isolation over the past few decades, there’s recent momentum to significantly cut back on—and even end—solitary confinement in US prisons and jails.

Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar

While prisons have been increasingly designed for isolation over the past few decades, there’s recent momentum to significantly cut back on—and even end—solitary confinement in US prisons and jails. A number of states, most notably New York, are beginning to push back against this inhumane practice by introducing bills to limit or abolish it. 

The background

Solitary confinement, used for centuries despite the well-documented adverse health effects, describes an environment where a person lives alone in a cell 24 hours a day with the possible exception of an hour or two of exercise, and limited (or no) access to visitors, books, or other media. There’s a wide range of reasons why a person might be held in solitary: as punishment, for their own protection (as we’re seeing with Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd), those who might pose a threat to national security, and even to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In 2015, when the United Nations issued a long-awaited update on prison conditions, solitary confinement for more than 15 days was defined as psychological torture. Those in law enforcement, however, maintain that isolation is necessary for the safety of both prisoners and officers. Unlike many countries in Europe with strict laws limiting isolation, the US generally does not have laws restricting time spent in solitary, so people can—and have—spent decades in solitary confinement. While there aren’t solid numbers on how many prisoners in the US are held in solitary confinement, ranges include from 60,000 to 70,000 every day, not counting jails, juvenile facilities, or immigration detention. A 2015 Department of Justice Report found that 20 percent of prisoners had spent time in solitary confinement in 2011–2012. 

New York and the US

Addressing solitary confinement is increasingly becoming a national issue. President Joe Biden included ending solitary confinement, with some exceptions, in his campaign promises.

Then, in early April, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which limits the amount of time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement to 15 days. The legislation also exempts certain groups of people, including pregnant women, seniors, people with disabilities, and those with a serious mental illness, from being held in solitary, and created “Residential Rehabilitation Units” to “provide incarcerated individuals with therapeutic and trauma-informed programming in a congregate setting.” Such rehabilitative communal programs have already had success in Europe and the UK.


New York isn’t the only state making moves to end solitary confinement (though the advocacy group Solitary Watch called the legislation the strongest yet). Three states have introduced bills this year that chip away at the US’ sweeping, persistent approach to isolation: Rhode Island’s Restrictive Housing Act would also limit solitary confinement to 15 days and exempt vulnerable populations, and bills in Louisiana and Florida  would ban isolation for people with mental illnesses and children, respectively.  

On the national stage, there are two bills working their way through Congress: H.R.176, introduced by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey), would restrict the use of solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons and establish a review process. And H.R.131 (Kalief’s Law), introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), would ban the use of solitary confinement for children in custody.  

Worldwide

You might have noticed by this point that 15 seems to be the magic number. This isn’t arbitrary, but the amount of time outlined by the United Nations in the so-called Nelson Mandela Rules. European Union member countries have different rules and varied lengths on the amount of time that isolation is permissible. Most have a maximum amount of a few weeks, with longer sentences requiring court approval. And in general, solitary confinement is used more selectively in other countries outside the US. (By comparison, about 60 prisoners out of approximately 85,000 in the UK are held in Closed Supervision Centres.)

There’s a lot of work still to be done to shift American prisons from relying on solitary confinement to rehabilitative institutions that support inmates, or, at minimum, don’t directly cause worse mental and physical health outcomes. New laws, like the one recently signed in New York, are chipping away at the mass incarceration playbook that relies too heavily on isolating prisoners. 

A writer and editor based in Leipzig, Germany, Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar is a contributor to The Progress Network. She is also editor-at-large at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.