Solitary Confinement

Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives


Shames, Alison, Jessa Wilcox, and Ram Subramanian. Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives. New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015.

There are indications that the use of solitary confinement (also known as segregated housing) has grown substantially in recent years (perhaps as much as by 42 percent between 1995 and 2005), yet the precise number of people held in segregated housing on any given day is not known with any certainty. Estimates range from 25,000 (which includes only those held in supermax facilities) to 80,000 (which includes those held in some form of segregated housing in all state and federal prisons). None of these estimates include people held in segregated housing in jails, military facilities, immigration detention centers, or juvenile justice facilities in the United States. Moreover, because these estimates are only one-day snapshots, they most likely underestimate the total number of people subjected to one or more periods in solitary confinement over the course of their incarceration.

Against this backdrop, evidence mounts that solitary confinement produces many unwanted and harmful outcomes—for the mental and physical health of those placed in isolation, for the public safety of the communities to which most will return, and for the corrections budgets of jurisdictions that rely on the practice for facility safety. As these negative impacts have come to light, concern about its overuse has grown. The severe conditions to which people in segregated housing are subjected are now regularly exposed by mainstream journalists. Incarcerated people who participate in hunger strikes against its use, such as those at Pelican Bay state prison in California in 2013, receive sympathetic national attention. A subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a series of hearings in 2012 and 2014 focused on reassessing the use of solitary confinement. In 2014, 10 states announced or implemented policy changes to reduce the number of adults or juveniles held in segregated housing, improve the conditions in segregation units, or facil- itate the return of segregated people to a prison's general population. And, most recently, New York City's Department of Correction made the historic decision to ban the use of segregated housing for all those in its custody 21 years old and younger.

Despite increased attention to the issue, many people—policymakers, corrections officials, and members of the public—still hold misconceptions about and misguided justifications for the use of solitary confinement. This report aims to dispel the most common of these misconceptions and highlight some of the promising alternatives that are resulting in fewer people in segregated housing.