In 2015, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture stated that more than 15 days spent in solitary confinement amounted to a form of torture and a violation of international law. However, the practice of solitary confinement in the United States rarely falls in accordance with the calls of human rights organizations. On any given day, up to 80,000 people are in isolation within American prisons.
One Pulitzer Center-supported project shedding light on the experiences of those who have been forced to endure solitary confinement is The BOX, by journalist and playwright Sarah Shourd, who was held in solitary confinement for more than 400 days as a political hostage in Iran. The play is on a 10-city tour across the United States, ending on September 4, 2022. The BOX, in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, aims to underscore “the horror of solitary confinement and the humanity of people subjected to it.”
Further Pulitzer Center-supported reporting on the impact of solitary confinement includes the use of solitary confinement in Belarus on protesters during demonstrations against President Aleksandr Lukashenko and on issues related to wrongful convictions.
- What is solitary confinement?
- Solitary confinement is when a person who is imprisoned is put into a cell away from other people, often completely isolated and without contact with others. Those in solitary confinement can spend 23-24 hours a day alone in a small windowless cell, often no bigger than 80 square feet, without meaningful contact with other people.
- Why are people placed into solitary confinement?
- According to Solitary Watch, a national watchdog organization, the practice is used as “a control strategy of first resort.” The Vera Institute found that more often than not people can be sent into solitary confinement “in response to low-level and nonviolent misbehaviors, because they need protection, due to custody or risk assessments, or in response to symptoms of mental illness.” Those who argue that solitary confinement serves the purpose of internal security in the prison have been undermined by recent reports that showed either the same level or a drop in violence when prisons discontinued use of solitary confinement.
- How does solitary confinement cause psychological harm?
- Solitary confinement causes psychological harm as people are placed in situations that deprive them of meaningful human contact and induce sensory deprivation for overwhelming periods of time. According to Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, the practice of solitary confinement can “trigger and exacerbate psychological suffering, in particular in inmates who may have experienced previous trauma or have mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities." Melzer further stated that the psychological impact “can range from progressively severe forms of anxiety, stress, and depression to cognitive impairment and suicidal tendencies” and that the practice “may well amount to psychological torture.”
- What are the health effects of solitary confinement?
- While in solitary confinement, people are forced into long periods of inactivity and sensory deprivation and report physical symptoms of “chronic headaches, trembling, sweaty palms, extreme dizziness, and heart palpitations.” In the long term, solitary confinement can actually shorten a person’s life span, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association study conducted in 2019. The study found that those who had been placed in solitary confinement were 24% more likely to die in the first year of their release, compared to those who were not placed in solitary. The study reported that those individuals were 78% more likely to die by suicide and 127% more likely to die by overdose within the first two weeks of release.
- What does solitary confinement mean in light of the Eighth Amendment?
- A common argument against the use of solitary confinement relies on the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. With the exception of one ruling, no court has ever decided that the use of solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment. One solitary confinement case that the Supreme Court could potentially rule on is Hope v. Harris. The case involves Dennis Wayne Hope, who has been in solitary confinement for 27 years. Hope is making the argument that such treatment is in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
- Do any states bar the use of solitary confinement?
- There are no states that currently bar the use of solitary confinement. A handful of states have recently considered or passed legislation that places limits on the use of solitary confinement. In 2021, the New York State Legislature passed the HALT Act, which limits the use of segregated confinement for all incarcerated individuals to 15 days. In 2019, New Jersey passed a law setting a 20-day limit for all incarcerated people and detainees.
- What are the positions of human rights organizations?
- The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Mandela Rules, sets the limit of days spent in solitary confinement to a maximum of 15. Any amount of time past that is regarded as a form of torture. In 2014, Amnesty International released its report on solitary confinement, “USA: Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal prison system.” The report stated that the experience of incarcerated people in solitary confinement amounted to a breach of international standards for the humane treatment of incarcerated individuals and a violation of international humanitarian law.
- What other resources are available on the issue of solitary confinement?
- To learn more about the state of solitary confinement in the United States today, check out any number of organizations that work toward ending the use of solitary confinement and educating the public on the topic. One such initiative is Unlock the Box, which offers resources on organizing in your community. Other resources include the Stop Solitary campaign under the ACLU and the national watchdog Solitary Watch, both of which offer resources on better understanding the harms of solitary confinement and organizing to bring awareness to the issue. Solitary Watch and Unlock the Box are both community partners of The BOX’s End of Isolation Tour.