Why the US Needs Solitary Confinement Reform

While most Americans have heard about the use of solitary confinement in prisons, not as many are aware of the brutal reality of the practice and the enormous toll it takes on human lives, as well as society in general.

Solitary confinement reform is desperately needed to counteract the demonstrated tendency for prison officers to over utilize solitary confinement as an intervention of first resort, and with devastating consequences.

Solitary confinement, sometimes referred to as isolation, restrictive housing, or segregation, refers to the common prison practice of locking people in small cells for 22 to 24 hours a day without any human contact or other sensory or mental stimulation.

Solitary confinement cells typically have a toilet and a shower, but no windows other than a small slot in the door large enough to slide through a food tray.

Prisoners are usually forbidden to have visitors or to receive or make telephone calls. Some inmates are subjected to this desolate and dehumanizing isolation for years, even decades.

The Skyrocketing Use of Solitary Confinement

Nearly every state uses some form of solitary confinement, but unfortunately there’s no federal reporting system that tracks how many people are isolated at any given time.

According to decade old data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80,000 men, women, and minors are held in solitary confinement in prisons across the country on any given day. That figure doesn’t even include prisoners in jails, juvenile facilities, and immigrant detention centers.

According to a report published by The Sentencing Project, in 2016 there were 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails, representing a 500% increase over the last forty years. In the early 1980s there was one super-max prison in the U.S. which held inmates exclusively in solitary confinement. Currently, there are over 40 of these types of facilities.

Considering the increase in the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system, the practice has become the subject of increased scrutiny from researchers, advocates, policymakers, media, and government agencies.

The Human Toll of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement was originally intended to manage people who committed violence within jails and prisons. Now the practice has become a common tool for housing people considered vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, as well as a method of responding to all levels of rule violations no matter how minor.

To add to the injustice of the practice, no one is ever sentenced by a court of law to be placed in solitary confinement. Although some prison inmates request to be temporarily placed in solitary confinement to be protected from other inmates, solitary confinement is usually arbitrarily imposed by prison guards, usually with few, if any, limitations or oversight.

Research has left no doubt as to the detrimental impact of solitary confinement, particularly to minors and those with mental illnesses. Additionally, studies have clearly shown solitary confinement to be both expensive and ineffective.

The abnormal isolation of solitary confinement creates and exacerbates mental illness in prisoners, resulting in an increase in prison violence, jeopardizing the public safety upon a prisoner’s re-entry into society, and increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

While solitary confinement may be an appropriate intervention method in some instances, legislation is still needed to thwart correctional facility abuses by installing limits on and providing safeguards for the use of solitary confinement for prisoners in both federal as well as state and county prisons, jails and other detention facilities.

Solitary Confinement Reduction Success Stories

Some states have passed legislation reducing the use of solitary confinement. States that have reduced their use of solitary confinement have noted a reduction in prison violence and have saved millions of dollars.

Maine State Prison reported a decrease in prisoner violence after reducing the use of solitary confinement, while Mississippi not only reported a decline in prison violence, but also saved more than $5 million.

Yet, in spite of the practical benefits of limiting solitary confinement of prison inmates, many states have not passed solitary confinement reform legislation, so the abuses to prisoner’s rights continue.

Case Studies and Recommendations

Vera Institute of Justice Center on Sentencing and Corrections partnered with five prison and jail systems in Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, New York City, and New Jersey to assess their use of solitary confinement and offer recommendations.

Vera’s report identified common themes in the use of solitary confinement and then offered safe alternatives.

Solitary Confinement Used as a Disciplinary Method

A substantial proportion of the prisoners in solitary confinement were there for minor, nonviolent rule infractions. Staff and other prisoners believed that some individuals committed offenses to be placed in solitary confinement because they feared victimization or violence in the general population.


  • Revise disciplinary policies and practices to make disciplinary sanctions more proportional to the offense in order to minimize the use of solitary confinement.
  • Implement preventive strategies to curb prisoner behavior that violates facility rules leading to solitary confinement.

Administrative Solitary Confinement

Prisoners considered dangerous or disruptive are commonly placed in solitary confinement as a preventative measure. However, infrequent reviews and the lack of set release dates or clear pathways out of solitary typically result in longer stays.


  • Minimize the placement of prisoners in administrative solitary confinement and shorten the length of time people spend there.
  • Find ways to make a prisoner’s time in solitary more productive and ease their return to the general population.

Specific Populations Placed in Solitary Confinement

Prisoners with mental health needs had high levels of placement in solitary confinement. Additionally, people of color were placed in solitary confinement at higher rates than whites, and young people were also over-represented. While women were less likely than men to be placed in solitary confinement, they had high levels of mental health needs.


  • Prohibit the placement of prisoner under 18, pregnant women, and prisoners with serious mental illness, developmental disabilities, or neurodegenerative diseases in any form of solitary confinement that limits meaningful access to social interaction, exercise, environmental stimulation, and therapeutic treatment.

Release from Solitary Confinement to the Community

Some prisoners are released directly to the community from solitary confinement, often with little preparation for reentry into society.


  • Never release people directly to the community from solitary confinement.

While progress has been made in the effort to reform the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, unfortunately, the inhumane practice continues.

If you are interested in working to end the torture of solitary confinement and promote restorative alternatives, contact the NRCAT for more information.

Listen to an archived podcast about solitary confinement.

Written by 

New Jersey lawyer turned blogger, podcaster and legal changemaker.