Challenging Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

Credit: Colorado Department of Corrections/AP

Credit: Colorado Department of Corrections/AP

Solitary confinement, a prison-based practice in which an incarcerated person is locked in a cell alone for hours, days, months, and even years or decades, is more prevalent in the U.S. than any other country. The new director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch, under a mandate to reform solitary confinement in Colorado prisons, decided earlier this month to spend a night in solitary confinement and write about his experience in an op-ed for the New York Times.* In his op-ed, Raemisch wrote about feeling “twitchy and paranoid” in solitary. Yet he called his 20-hour stay “practically a blink,” compared to incarcerated people sent to solitary confinement in Colorado for an average of 23 months, with some spending “20 years.”

As Raemisch wrote, American prisons have “become a dumping ground for the mentally ill”—and this is exaggerated in solitary confinement. Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been studying isolated prisoners and estimates that about one-third are “mentally ill, and a disproportionate number are minorities, partly because alleged gang membership is grounds for placing a prisoner in solitary indefinitely.” His work, discussed in Smithsonian Magazine, is part of a building movement to research the effects of solitary confinement and understand the science behind isolating people for long stretches of time.

Activism to eliminate solitary confinement continues to swell. The ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and other nonprofits are leading campaigns to end the practice and create public awareness about the serious damaging effects of segregating and isolating people in prison. In our home state of California, prisoners organized hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 to protest the inhumane conditions and long-term solitary confinement of people (some sent there indefinitely!) in the Security Housing Unit (“SHU”) at Pelican Bay State Prison and others around CA. You can read more on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity blog and learn more about the organizations supporting their efforts here.

These organizing efforts combined with voices of reformers from within corrections, like Raemisch, are helping to increase public awareness about how solitary confinement is abusive to people in prison and can have dire implications when an isolated person is then released back into the community. Raemisch wrote that in Colorado, “in 2012, 140 people were released into the public from Ad Seg [solitary confinement]; last year, 70; [and] so far in 2014, two.” When people under these circumstances are returned to their communities, they are often psychologically and physically more ill and abused than when they first entered prison. In the field of reentry, this creates a huge barrier for people to reconnect with the outside world. As a reentry advocacy center, Root & Rebound feels passionately that the way people are treated inside has direct consequences for their ability to rebuild and rejoin the community on the outside, and we hope to see an end to the abuse and overuse of solitary confinement.

If you would like to continue to follow this issue and urge our government officials to speak out against solitary confinement, we suggest signing the ACLU’s petition and following the CA movement’s Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity’s Take Action! page. We applaud Mr. Raemisch of Colorado for speaking out on this issue and also see that there is a long road ahead to reduce abuse against incarcerated people in the U.S.

— The R & R Team


* For a response to Mr. Raemisch’s op-ed, see The Atlantic‘s article, “Colorado’s Prison Director Spent 20 Hours in Solitary—but That’s Not Enough,” urging the release of two individuals currently held in solitary confinement in Colorado’s prisons.

2 thoughts on “Challenging Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

  1. Pingback: An end to ‘the hole’? 6 signz that solitary confinement reform is coming | Moorbey'z Blog

  2. Pingback: NYC Mayor Appoints Nationally Acclaimed Prison Reformer, Joseph Ponte, as New Commissioner of Corrections | Root & Rebound

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