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Justice Talk

Highlights From Our Justice Talk On Solitary Confinement

From comparisons to “Orange Is the New Black” to accounts from people who spent time in solitary, this is what you missed in our chat with Digg.

Yesterday marked our second installment of Justice Talk, a monthly online discussion series about criminal justice in partnership with Digg. The topic: solitary confinement. The chatter ranged from how we reported our recent story with NPR on a practice known as double celling — in which two prisoners are placed in a small solitary cell together for nearly 24 hours a day — to anecdotes from former inmates with intimate knowledge of how prisons use isolation. Below, a collection of some of the most striking exchanges.

Why People are Sent to Solitary

Obviously shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” with its comedic take on prison life, don't do the prison system complete justice. I'm curious as to what determines whether a prisoner goes into solitary confinement or not.@KitKat

So how people end up in "solitary" (using these quotes because as we know, not everyone in this restrictive housing is actually alone) varies a lot from state to state, prison to prison. There's what's known as administrative segregation, where people are sent if the prison deems them a gang member, or an enduring threat to the prison's security for some reason. Then there's disciplinary segregation, where you are sent for breaking some rule. Sometimes, that's a violent offense, like beating someone up, assaulting a guard, being caught with a weapon. Other times, it’s something less serious, like disobeying a direct order, being caught with other contraband, etc. - Christie Thompson, The Marshall Project

Wanted to chime in here. For Illinois, it is usually minor violations of the rules (information is from Coleman v. Baldwin, a case filed by Uptown People's Law Center challenging Illinois' excessive use of solitary.) – Alan Mills, Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center

“Orange Is the New Black” actually brings up another side of solitary through Laverne Cox's character, the transgender woman who is sent to solitary "for her own protection." There are actually thousands of people in isolation in "protective custody" — because they are LGBTQ, children in adult prisons, or vulnerable for some other reason — and they are often in conditions identical to those in solitary for punishment. – Jean Casella, Solitary Watch

How can prisons get away with double-booking solitary rooms? – @catch22

I think it persists in part because very few people know it's happening. Everyone here at The Marshall Project was really shocked, and frankly, confused, when we realized how common it was. And there was a great moment in a recent congressional hearing when the former BOP head Charles Samuels tells Sen. Corey Booker that most people in fed restrictive housing have a cellmate, and Booker looks dumbfounded. He has to ask the question several times just to clarify. From what we saw, when there were lawsuits brought on behalf of families, which were rare, they settled that single suit and moved on. It would likely take a class-action suit or legislative action or both to change it. – Christie Thompson

How Solitary in the U.S. Compares to the Rest of the World

Is the solitary issue essentially an overcrowding issue? – @polybius

The experience of European countries, which have more rehabilitative prison models and lower recidivism rates, shows that what you are suggesting is true. We respond to problematic behavior in society by throwing vast numbers of people in prison, rather than trying to deal with the root causes of the behavior. And inside prison, we deal with problems by throwing people into concrete boxes and leaving them there. Many of the people who end up in solitary — especially those with mental illness — need MORE interaction and treatment and socialization, not less. – Jean Casella

Do you know of any institutions that use solitary confinement to take people out of stressful/potentially dangerous situations for a couple of hours? Or do most places use prolonged periods of isolation as punishment only? – Anna Dubenko, Digg

All of Europe does this. In the U.S., there are few prisons who do this right, but states like Colorado, Maine, and even Mississippi have made huge reforms and are coming closer. – Alan Mills

Is there something specific about American solitary confinement that makes it particularly worse than in other countries? – @dolphy

I think what's going on with Anders Behring Breivik right now is fascinating. He's Norway's most notorious criminal, and yet there's some real debate right now about whether his conditions are humane, whether he should be held in complete isolation. It's definitely a stark contrast to what happens here, where we hold people far less violent in total isolation (or double-celled segregation) with not much discussion — until these past few years, anyways. My colleague Maurice did a great series on how Germany does prison that gets at some of these comparative issues. – Christie Thompson

The Record

The best criminal justice reporting from around the web, organized by subject

There simply are no other Western democracies that use solitary confinement on a mass scale. In Europe's prison systems, you find only a handful of people in solitary, and even they tend to be in conditions that are less harsh and isolating. Using solitary to the extent we use it places us in the company of countries like Iran, not other democratic nations. – Jean Casella

On Solitary and Mental Illness

Are there studies that scientifically link higher rates of mental illness to time spent in solitary? – @JoeTonelli

The best people to read on this issue are Craig Haney, Stuart Grassian, and Terry Kupers. They study the psychological impact of time in isolation. It's tough to piece apart how much is the mental strain of just being in solitary, and how much is the fact that people with a pre-existing mental illness are more likely to end up there (because they often have a harder time following prison rules, some corrections officers don't know how to deal with them, although prisons are making a real effort to address this). But both @JoeShapiro and I have met with people who said they had no mental health issues before going into "the hole," and really struggled after they got out. – Christie Thompson

Obviously there are a lot of issues with solitary confinement. What's the best case you've heard for the practice (if there is one)? – Anna Dubenko, Digg

I don't think that there is any case for long-term solitary. However, isolating people who are in crisis--whether in prison or elsewhere--is often a good thing. It allows mental health professionals to adjust medication and figure out what else is going on, without exposing the patient or others to danger. But that isolation should be measured in hours, not decades. – Alan Mills, UPLC

As I have been on this chat, I was handed a letter from a man in solitary in Pontiac Correctional Center here in Illinois. He had been treated for a serious mental illness as a kid. In prison, he was sent to solitary in 1995, at the age of 19. He has been in solitary ever since. He is currently scheduled to leave solitary in 2044. During those times in solitary when his mental illness has been treated, he has received ZERO disciplinary violations. When his illness has NOT been treated, he has received hundreds of disciplinary violations. It does absolutely no good to keep anyone in solitary for fifty years, when all he really needs is decent mental health treatment. – Alan Mills, UPLC

Is It Torture?

I for one don't think it is "cruel and unusual punishment". My dorm room was a tiny bit bigger than theirs and I was paying to live there. Yes I got to leave but that is a different issue. You have to remember these people are CRIMINALS. And they don't get put into solitary for "no reason" or "not making their bed". What they get put in for is either a series of infractions or a major infraction. Yes there are those that are deemed a threat to the general population. Those people are psychopaths. There are those that are there for protection and if it came down to it I would take solitary as opposed to death. Additionally, how is this treatment any worse than what the person did to wind up in prison? They violated someone's rights and someone's freedoms to wind up there. How and why should a prisoner have better living conditions than someone who is trying to live life right and who was violated by them? – @itsme

You need to get your college to refund what you paid for that dorm room! I lived in some small dorm rooms, but nothing like the cell Bernard Simmons died in: about the size of a King Size bed, just 4 feet 8 inches wide, 10 feet 8 inches long. With two bunks, a sink, the toilet right by the bed. No natural light, steel doors. And you're there 23-24 hours a day. You don't go to the cafeteria. The food comes through a slot in your door. Even with my favorite roommate, I couldn't have survived that. So yes, these are often violent people who've committed awful crimes. Still, aren't we judged as a society by how we treat even people like that? And one more thing: We've come across people who end up in solitary--often with the kind of cellmate you describe--who committed relatively minor crimes. – Joseph Shapiro, NPR

I have been in Ad Seg before and I found the experience depended on my perspective. I have seen many more people raped, beaten and killed by CO's, shanked and suicides in Gen. Pop than ever in the hole. Prison life is a bitch any way you look at it but the fake medical care and general psychoses of the CO's (sadism, corruption, sex slavery. etc.) are far worse problems than the hole. The standards to be a CO need to be raised and we need sub-rosa (under cover) correctional officers in all the prison's in the country. – @FredPark

I completely agree that solitary is not the only problem with our prisons. UPLC has 9 pending class action lawsuits--only one of which focuses explicitly on solitary. One focuses on what you call "fake medical care" and one on mental health care (or the lack of it) which is connected to suicides. One is challenging an extraordinarily abusive series of "searches" performed by Illinois "Orange Crush" unit, where about 250 officers stormed through four prisons, using Abu Ghraib-type tactics of sexual humiliation, stress positions, etc. – Alan Mills, UPLC

From 2012-2014 I worked as a researcher for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Correctional Health Services based out of the West Facility on Rikers Island. While I worked there, I witnessed the extreme and bitter fight between the Department of Health and the Department of Corrections over the use of solitary confinement firsthand. I also had the opportunity to visit several of the solitary units (called punitive segregation at Rikers).

I will never forget the screaming of the inmates as they banged their hands and heads on their steel boxes, wanting anyone to give them some attention. I will never forget the fact that many of them were already mentally ill and that solitary only exacerbated their conditions leading some to commit suicide shortly after leaving solitary. I will never forget the callousness and casual brutality of the corrections officers who taunted and threatened these inmates in front of me like it was routine.

Solitary confinement is torture. – Sarah Thompson