Facts About Solitary Confinement


●      Use of solitary confinement was largely discontinued in the United States in 1890 when the Supreme Court ruled that it led to mental deterioration and resulted in no rehabilitation of those incarcerated.

●      The practice was re-implemented in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the so-called “War on Drugs”.

●      The number of isolated individuals nationwide increased from under 60,000 in 1995 to over 80,000 in 2005.[i]

●      Today there are over 80,000 individuals in solitary confinement in United States’ prisons. This number rises 100,000 when factoring in county jails, immigrant detention centers, and youth centers.[ii]

●      Supermax prisons, which are generally composed solely of solitary confinement cells, house approximately 25,000 Americans.[iii]


“Solitary confinement facts” - Adapted from the American Friends Service Committee[iv]:

●      Complete isolation in the cell for 22 to 24 hours of the day. For the remaining hour or two, individuals who are confined are allowed to go outside (while still alone), to a walled-in pen, or shower

●      Cramped cells which contain a toilet, a sink, all of your possessions, and a cot

●      Average cells range from  6’ to 8’ by 9’ to 10’

●      Those in solitary receive meals through a slot in the door

●      Infrequent phone calls and rare non-contact family visits

●      Extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programming

●      Grossly inadequate medical and mental health treatment

●      Restricted reading material and personal property

●      Physical torture such as hog-tying, restraint chairs, and forced cell extraction

●      Mental torture such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures, and forced insomnia

●      Sexual intimidation and violence


Use on Mentally Ill

●      Symptoms of mental illness can result in being placed in solitary confinement in many prisons

●      While in solitary confinement, incarcerated individuals receive little to no psychiatric consultation, including going as many as nine months without prescribed monthly treatments

●      According to the American Psychiatric Association, clinicians agree that when subjected to solitary, “inmates’ psychiatric conditions will clinically deteriorate or not improve."[v]


Generation of Mental Illness

●     “Many prisoners become so desperate and despondent that they engage in self-mutilation” and have “smeared themselves with feces, [sat] catatonic in puddles of their own urine on the floors of their cells, or shriek[ed] wildly and bang[ed] their fists or their heads against the walls that contain them.” (Chris Haney-testifying before Dick Durbin's judiciary subcommittee hearing on confinement)[vi]

●      Common symptoms of people in solitary confinement include hallucinations, panic attacks, depression, loss of memory, mood swings.[vii]

●      Approximately 50 percent of prison suicides occur among the 4 percent of people in solitary confinement.[viii]


The Costs of Solitary (From Solitary Watch’s “The High Cost of Solitary Confinement”[ix])

●      It costs the state up to three times as much to keep an incarcerated person in solitary as it does to keep them in the general prison population: yearly costs can reach $77,000 and higher, per individual in solitary, per year.

●      Construction costs for solitary confinement cells are also higher, with one study putting the price at two to three times that of a normal cell.

●      After Mississippi reduced its solitary population from 1000 to 150 and closed its one supermax, Mississippi taxpayers were saved $8 million dollars a year, according to the ACLU.

Ineffectiveness of Solitary Confinement

●      States that reduced their use of isolation in prisons by up to 75% saw significant decreases in prison violence.[x]

●      When Mississippi reduced the number of people held in solitary confinement from 1000 to 150, incidents of violence within the facility decreased by almost 70%.[xi]

●      One state-wide study showed that people who were released directly from solitary confinement into society had a recidivism rate of 64%, as opposed to the 41% rate of individuals who spent some time in the normal prison setting before returning to society.[xii]

●      “Segregation was developed as a method for handling highly dangerous prisoners. However, it has increasingly been used with prisoners who do not pose a threat to staff or other prisoners but are placed in segregation for minor violations that are disruptive but not violent, such as talking back (insolence), being out of place, failure to report to work or school, or refusing to change housing units or cells.” - Michael Jacobson, President and Director of the Vera Institute of Justice[xiii]


Targeted Uses of Solitary

●      In addition to disproportionate use on mentally ill populations within prisons, solitary is used as a tool against already marginalized and disadvantaged populations.

●      African-Americans represent about 14% of Americans[xiv], 38% of incarcerated persons[xv], but about 60% of people held in solitary confinement.[xvi]

●      About 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement on any given day at the 50 largest detention facilities that make up the sprawling patchwork of holding centers nationwide overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.[xvii]

●      From a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “[T]he Inter-American Commission is deeply troubled by the use of confinement (“administrative segregation” or “disciplinary segregation”) in the case of vulnerable immigration detainees, including members of the LGBT community, religious minorities and mentally challenged detainees. The use of confinement to protect a threatened population amounts to a punitive measure. Equally troubling is the extent to which this measure is used as a disciplinary tool.”[xviii]

●      Religious minorities are often subjected to solitary confinement, especially those of Muslim faith. Specific units in prisons were created so that Muslims would have less access to the outside world and their families.[xix]

●      Adolescents placed in solitary confinement often cannot see family members, access proper nutrition, read books, or study classroom materials. Some prisons place juveniles in solitary confinement by default to “protect” them from adult inmates; jail officials in three states reported that all young people under age 18 in their facilities were held in protective solitary confinement.[xx]

●      LGBTQ individuals are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement for common offenses or gender expression where they are subject to endure physical and sexual abuse.[xxi]


Hope for Change

●      Solitary confinement qualifies as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” and even torture - Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and High Commissioner on Human Rights (Jan. 2012)

●      U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issues new solitary directive for immigrants changing use to last resort only, review anything more than 14 days, but stops short of banning it (Sept. 4, 2013)

●      States like Mississippi that have reduced solitary populations have seen drops in violence and prison costs.

●      New York City Department of Corrections has recently decided to end the use of solitary confinement on minors.[xxii]

●      In response to a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York State Department of Community Corrections agreed to reform their use of solitary, with steps being taken to immediately remove youth, pregnant women, and developmentally disabled and intellectually challenged individuals from extreme isolation.[xxiii]

●      Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin held two hearings calling the U.S. senate to “end use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women, and those with serious mental illness.[xxiv]


Further Reading

Senate Hearings:



Fact Sheets:
















Briggs, Chad S., Jody L. Sundt, and Thomas C. Castellano. "Effect of Supermaximum Security Prisons on Aggregate Levels of Institutional Violence." Criminology 41.4 (2003): 1341-376. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Web. <https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=204763>.

Bulman, Philip. "The psychological effects of solitary confinement." Corrections Today 74.3 (2012): 58+. Criminal Justice Collection. Web. 12 Jan. 2013.

Casella, Jean, and Solitary Watch. Solitary 101. 2012. Powerpoint. Washington, DC.

Casella, Jean, and James Ridgeway. How Many Prisoners Are in Solitary Confinement in the United States? Solitary Watch. N.p., 1 Feb. 2012. Web

Cohn, Marjorie. "Torture, American Style." TREATMENT OF PRISONERS. Historians Against War, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2013

"Fact Sheet: Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement." Solitary Watch. Ed. Sal Rodriguez. N.p., 2011. Web.

International Psychological Trauma Symposium, Istanbul. The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2007.

In Re Medley. Supreme Court. 1890. Vlex. N.p., n.d. Web.

Opening Statements, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Hearing on Solitary Confinement, 112th Cong. (2012) (testimony of Senator Richard Durbin).

Pendergrass, Taylor, and Christopher Dunn. New York Civil Liberties Union Complaint. 6 Dec. 2012. Federal Lawsuit. New York.      

Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences, 112th Cong. (2012) (testimony of Stuart M. Andrews, Jr.).

Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Hearing on Solitary Confinement, 112th Cong. (2012) (testimony of Professor Craig Haney).

Weir, Kirsten. "Alone, in ‘the Hole’." American Psychological Association 43.5 (2012): 54. APA. APA

Zinger, Ivan, and Cherami Wichmann. The Psychological Effects of 60 Days in Administrative Segregation. Correctional Service of Canada, Mar. 1999.




[ii] http://solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/fact-sheet-the-high-cost-of-solitary-confinement.pdf

[iii] http://solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/fact-sheet-the-high-cost-of-solitary-confinement.pdf

[iv] https://afsc.org/resource/solitary-confinement-facts

[v] https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/media/publications/journal_of_american_academy_of_psychiatry_and_the_law_solitary_confinement_and_mental_illness_in_us_prison_2010.pdf

[vi] https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2012/oct/15/solitary-confinement-subject-of-unprecedented-congressional-hearing/

[vii] http://www.wired.com/2013/07/solitary-confinement-2/

[viii] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/20/us/senators-start-a-review-of-solitary-confinement.html

[ix] http://solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/fact-sheet-the-high-cost-of-solitary-confinement.pdf

[x] http://nycaic.org/facts/

[xi] http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/michael-jacobson-testimony-on-solitary-confinement-2012.pdf

[xii] http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/Confronting_Confinement.pdf, p. 55.

[xiii] http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/michael-jacobson-testimony-on-solitary-confinement-2012.pdf

[xiv] http://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/populations/remp/black.html

[xv] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/p12acpr.cfm

[xvi] http://nycaic.org/facts/

[xvii] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/us/immigrants-held-in-solitary-cells-often-for-weeks.html

[xviii] http://www.immigrantjustice.org/sites/immigrantjustice.org/files/Invisible%20in%20Isolation-The%20Use%20of%20Segregation%20and%20Solitary%20Confinement%20in%20Immigration%20Detention.September%202012.pdf

[xix] http://solitarywatch.com/2013/08/08/the-use-of-isolation-in-u-s-prisons-a-human-rights-issue/

[xx] http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us1012ForUpload.pdf

[xxi] http://srlp.org/files/warinhere.pdf

[xxii] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/29/nyregion/solitary-confinement-to-end-for-youngest-at-rikers-island.

[xxiii] http://www.nyclu.org/news/nyclu-lawsuit-secures-historic-reforms-solitary-confinement

[xxiv] http://www.durbin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=c684591f-9197-4306-8af0-f9914117f287