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Solitary Confinement

Conservative Solutions


“Putting someone in solitary is a fate worse than death. I agree that’s not humane. A punishment or consequence should never be harsher than whatever bad was done. Whatever these folks did – and usually it is an internal offense inside prison that gets them in these solitary cells – nothing, other than murdering a guard, can possibly justify putting them in these conditions that drive them mad.” – Pat Nolan, Director of Nolan Center for Justice

Solitary confinement (or “restricted housing”) is used far too frequently across the nation. While there may be rare situations that necessitate isolation of an inmate, the psychological impacts of solitary confinement require that reasonable limits be placed on its use. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has noted that 20% of all state offenders spend some time in restrictive housing.

Inmates in solitary confinement sit alone in a closed cell, free of human interaction, for at least 22 hours a day. Isolated cells usually don’t contain any natural light, and the offender is unable to bring personal belongings with him/her. Contact with family is reduced or completely lost. Also, inmates are seldom given access to enriching activities such as education classes or religious programs.

Solitary confinement is not limited to extremely violent inmates. The number of extremely violent prisoners was far less than the prisons officials had estimated. These officials didn’t want the legislature to find out that there were a large number of empty beds in such an expensive facility. So, they did what any good bureaucrat would do: they filled the beds with prisoners who weren’t the worst of the worst. They widened the net to include additional categories of prisoners. They added inmates who were incorrigible (i.e. difficult to manage). Most of these are mentally ill. By definition, someone who is psychotic has difficulty understanding and following orders. These prisoners are not bad, they are sick. However, many corrections officers find them difficult to manage, and write them up for violations of policies. After several “shot” they sent them to isolation. This makes the officers’ jobs easier, but it also exacerbates the underlying mental illness of the inmates, driving them deeper and deeper into mental illness.

Issues surrounding overuse of solitary confinement have resulted in the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s defining it as: “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and harmful to an individual’s health.”

Moreover, studies show that solitary confinement aggravates mental illness, which unfortunately, is prevalent among the incarcerated. The American Psychological Association (APA) released a policy statement on the segregation of adult inmates, stating: “If an inmate with serious mental illness is placed in segregation, out-of-cell structured therapeutic activities (i.e., mental health/psychiatric treatment) in appropriate programming space and adequate unstructured out-of-cell time should be permitted.”

Conservative Solutions

  • Limit solitary confinement to cases of clear danger of violence that cannot be controlled in other settings.
  • Review each case individually each month to determine whether solitary is still appropriate. The policy should be to transfer inmates out of segregation as soon as possible.
  • Provide opportunities for inmates in segregation to engage in productive activities, such as education, treatment, and religious programs.
  • Allow inmates in segregation to have regular and meaningful human contact.
  • Carefully review each case for mental illness before confining an inmate in isolation. Evaluate mentally ill inmates at periodic intervals, with the reviews performed by psychiatrists who are not employed by the corrections department.
  • Allow inmates to challenge the decision to send them to segregation units.
  • NEVER release inmates directly from solitary confinement to the streets. Allow gradual decompression, with increasing opportunities for the inmate to make choices.

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