Activists say the U.S. must halt solitary confinement

Activists and at least one representative from the United Nations on Thursday said the United States has long been responsible for a dangerous export: The use of solitary confinement for incarcerated individuals. 

It’s hardly the first time the U.S. has been held up as a poor example of prisoner treatment.

What You Need To Know

  • Activists are urging the United States and other nations to end the practice of solitary confinement for incarcerated individuals 
  • The practice of punishment through confinement largely originated in the United States in the 18th century, spurred by Quaker beliefs
  • The U.N. says solitary confinement is when an individual is isolated in a closed cell, with little to no human contact for 22-24 hours
  • Numerous studies have long revealed the mental and physical harm that can be attributed to prolonged time in solitary confinement

It’s true that the practice of punishment through confinement largely originated in the United States in the 18th century, spurred by Quaker beliefs that people facing prolonged periods of solitude would use the time to pray and offer penance for their sins. (Quakers later moved away from the use of solitary confinement.)

In the centuries since, both the prison population and the amount of individuals in solitary confinement grew exponentially across the United States.

But the U.S. did not limit the practice to its own borders, activists said during a virtual roundtable discussion on Thursday. Instead, the use of solitary confinement was spread to other countries through diplomatic or other means.

One such “exportation” of the practice came during the early-2000 “Plan Colombia,” when agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons were sent to South America to, in part, help the country “modernize” its prison system. 

The U.S. repeated the same pattern in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Dr. Baz Dreisinger, a professor of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and executive director of the Incarceration Nations Network.

“Some of those prisons went to waste and, and I should say that all of these practices are grounded in ideas around this supermax model, the U.S. invention that was hoisted on the world,” she added.

Solitary confinement comes in many forms and under numerous names, and it is used for a variety of reasons. Some inmates are moved to solitary confinement as punishment for poor behavior; other inmates who may be in danger are put in “protective custody,” which essentially amounts to the same thing. 

The common definition of solitary confinement, as put forward by the United Nations, is when an incarcerated individual is isolated in a closed cell, with little to no human contact for 22-24 hours in any given day. 

In 2015, the U.N. adopted what is now known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” which define the minimum standard treatment of prisoners in every party nation, which includes the U.S. The updated guidelines say solitary confinement should be used only in exceptional circumstances, and never for more than 15 consecutive days or for the punishment of mentally ill individuals or minors.

While not legally binding, the rules “represent the minimum conditions which are accepted as suitable by the United Nations.” 

“In terms of U.N. response, we have been noticing that despite these clear international norms and standards, in [the] vast majority of the cases in countries that we work with, we still see a lot of use of solitary confinement,” said Miwa Kato, director of operations for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The United States has far and away the highest prison population of any developed country. While estimates on the number of inmates housed in such conditions varies, most experts agree that around 80,000 people are in solitary confinement in the U.S. 

Activists say it is far past time to address the high human cost of solitary incarceration. Numerous studies, from both the United States and abroad, have long revealed the mental and physical harm that can be attributed to prolonged time in solitary confinement. 

A 2010 study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, found that solitary confinement is particularly harmful to individuals who have severe pre-existing mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder. 

“The stress, lack of meaningful social contact, and unstructured days can exacerbate symptoms of illness or provoke recurrence,” the report read in part. “Suicides occur disproportionately more often in segregation units than elsewhere in prison. All too frequently, mentally ill prisoners decompensate in isolation, requiring crisis care or psychiatric hospitalization. Many simply will not get better as long as they are isolated.”

But solitary confinement remains a controversial topic within the United States, particularly as it pertains to juvenile offenders and the mentally ill. 

There has been some movement on the issue in recent years: In 2016, then-President Barack Obama banned federal prisons from putting juveniles in solitary confinement. But the president also said there are “circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates.” 

The law does not apply to state-run or private prisons, and some states still allow the practice. 

Others, like Virginia and New York City, have moved to either loosen restrictions on prisoners in solitary confinement, or to ban the practice altogether. 

In June, the New York City Board of Correction voted unanimously to end solitary confinement across all jails, with Mayor Bill DeBlasio saying the city was “going further than any jail system in America to ban solitary confinement once and for all.” 

Also this summer, Virginia’s Department of Corrections issued a news release last week saying it had “completed the removal of restrictive housing” in the state’s prisons by offering at least four hours of out-of-cell time for those inmates.

But the ACLU of Virginia and Interfaith Action for Human Rights told the Richmond Times-Dispatch the claim was not true. Both groups said they have gotten complaints about conditions that don’t meet the standards the state described.

Regardless, activists do not think the efforts are widespread enough, and urge Americans to pressure Congress and the Biden administration to end the practice altogether. 

It’s a pledge Joe Biden made during his campaign, saying he would end “the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person.”  

While Biden did issue a number of executive orders addressing the federal prison population at the outset of his presidency, none pertained to the use of solitary confinement. 

Some say Biden overlooked a key agency responsible for the treatment of prisoners: The federal Bureau of Prisons.

While most criminal justice overhauls require action from local officials or legislation, reforming the federal prison system is something Biden and his Justice Department control. And there are crying needs there for improvement.

The administration can’t control the laws that get someone sent to prison. But it can control staffing, transparency, health care, the use of solitary confinement and, most of all, agency leadership.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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