Almost 50,000 men and women are being held in prolonged solitary confinement in US prisons, in breach of minimum standards laid down by the United Nations which considers such isolation a form of torture.
in to new report spearheaded by Yale Law School, the number of prisoners subjected to “restrictive housing”, as solitary is officially known, stood at between 41,000 and 48,000 in the summer of 2021. They were being held alone in cells the size of parking spaces, for 22 hours a day on average and for at least 15 days.
Within that number, more than 6,000 prisoners have been held in isolation for over a year. They include almost a thousand people who have been held on their own in potentially damaging confined spaces for a decade or longer.
The report, produced by Yale’s Arthur Limon Center together with the Correctional Leaders Association which represents directors of all prison systems, underlines the daunting mountain that the US has yet to climb if it is to combat a form of incarceration widely condemned as a human rights violation .
Studies have shown that even short periods of solitary can bring on severe mental health problems including depression, aggression and suicidal thoughts.
Its destructive harm was highlighted by the death earlier this month of Albert Woodfox who, before his release from Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison in 2016, was the longest-standing solitary confinement inmate in the country. He was cooped up for 43 years almost without break in a 6ft by 9ft cell.
In his 2019 book Solitary, Woodfox described the impact of decades of isolation on him. He had regular terrifying bouts of claustrophobia which forced him to sleep sitting up to avoid the sensation of the walls closing in on him.
The new solitary study, Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing, extrapolates its findings from the reported figures of 34 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Though it finds that levels of solitary remain shockingly high, it also stresses that the figures are moving in the right direction.
When the researchers began the series of annual snapshots in 2014 the number of prisoners trapped in isolation was almost twice today’s level, at between 80,000 to 100,000. Since then the graph has steadily declined, with a growing number of states introducing new laws to restrict or even ban the practice.
“In the 1980s people promoted solitary confinement as a way to deal with violence in prisons,” said Judith Resnik, Yale’s Arthur Liman professor of law. “It is now seen as a problem itself that needs to be solved.”
California, a state with a dark history of abusive solitary confinement, is currently debating new legislation. the California Mandela Act would require every custodial institution in the state to impose strict rules and reporting, and would ban solitary for pregnant women, people under 26 or over 59, and those with mental or physical disabilities.
Last year New York state passed similar legislation, joining a growing list. The Yale study finds that three states – Delaware, North Dakota and Vermont – reported having no inmates in such confinement in 2021, and two other states said they had fewer than 10 people.
Despite such optimistic signs, restrictive housing continues to inflict untold suffering on thousands of men and women. John Thompson, who spent more than a third of his 37 years in prison in solitary for largely minor infractions, described recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer how it “chipped away at my positive attitude, my patience, and my personality”.
He spent sometimes years on end in a tiny cell prohibited from talking to anybody else and “with the fluorescent lightbulbs shining on me at nearly all hours of the day so that I could be surveilled”.
The Yale report highlights several areas of ongoing concern. More than 1,000 people with “serious mental illness” are still being held in isolation.
Black women are also disproportionately targeted. Some 30% of those in restrictive housing in women’s prisons are African American compared with 20% of the overall prison population.
“Isolation is used less frequently in women’s prisons, but the women who suffer the most are Black women,” Resnik said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism