COLUMBIA, Mo. — In 1842, Charles Dickens visited an American prison devoted to the perfection of solitary confinement.
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers,” Dickens later wrote. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Today, solitary confinement is once again widespread in American prisons. It is used to discipline unruly inmates, protect potential victims, disrupt gang activity and isolate dangerous prisoners. More than 80,000 prisoners are held in some form of solitary confinement across the country, according data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The U.S. is an outlier in the world both in the extent to which it uses solitary and the amount of time inmates spend in isolation. In 2009, for example, more inmates were held in solitary confinement in the state of Maine than in England, according to an article by Atul Gawande.
However, that may be changing. A handful of states, including Maine, have significantly reduced their reliance on solitary confinement, and there is growing consensus that the practice can be counterproductive and expensive.
A failed experiment, resurgentThe first American experiments in solitary confinement were carried out in the early 19th century, according to a United Nations report. In an attempt to protect inmates — from what was though to be the corrupting influence of the world and from other inmates — prisons were built to house inmates in strict solitary confinement. It was thought that isolation itself was crucial to rehabilitation, and the Philadelphia System, as it was known, became a model for prisons around the world. The Philadelphia System grew from the same social movement that gave rise to the first large mental hospitals in the country. Although the prisons were designed to aid rehabilitation, they instead produced insanity, disease and death at rates higher than prisons that permitted interaction among the inmates, according to an article by Stuart Grassian, an expert on the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement.
In the face of mounting evidence that solitary was detrimental to rehabilitation, the model of rigid solitary confinement was largely discarded at the end of the 19th century, and it remained relatively uncommon in American prisons for nearly another century.
However, in the past several decades the use of solitary confinement in American prisons has once again exploded. This increase is due in part to burgeoning prison populations and prison officials’ increased reliance on solitary confinement as a means of maintaining control in crowded prisons. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, there were about 57,000 people in restricted housing in the United States in 1995. By 2005, that number had swollen to more than 80,000.
Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s D.C.-based National Prison Project, says that although no single factor is responsible for the return of solitary confinement, the groundwork was laid in the late ’70s by the widespread feeling that nothing was working.
Confronted with overcrowded prisons and an influx of the mentally ill, prison officials turned to solitary confinement as an expedient tool for maintaining order. When rehabilitation ceases to be a prison system’s objective, Fettig says, punishment becomes the goal.
In federal prisons, the number of people held in some form of restrictive housing has increased at a rate faster than the general prison population, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The number of people held in some form of segregated housing in federal facilities increased 17 percent from 2008 to February 2013, compared to a 6 percent increase in the total prisoner population over the same period, according to the GAO report. In February 2013, about 7 percent of the 213,000 inmates held by the Bureau of Prisons were in restricted housing.
One of the first such restrictive housing units was created at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois in 1972. Marion kicked off a building boom, Fettig says, and by 1997 more than 40 states had built their own Supermax facilities. Supermax prisons are facilities that serve to isolate disruptive or violent prisoners by holding them in solitary confinement.
Margo Schlanger is a law professor at the University of Michigan and heads the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. She has worked extensively on the issue of solitary confinement and advised the Department of Homeland Security on civil rights and civil liberties issues.
Schlanger attributes the rise of solitary confinement to an “increasing ideology that there was a ‘worst of the worst,’” which fed into “kind of a fad of building Supermax facilities and seeing whole prisons that were devoted to isolation.”
Today, those who worked in prisons before the rise of solitary confinement have mostly retired, Fettig says, and their replacements have never known another way of managing prisons.
Although there has been a decline in prison violence over the same period of decades during which solitary has increased, Schlanger says, it does not mean Supermax facilities are necessary to reduce violence. In fact, studies that have assessed the levels of violence in a state’s prisons after it opened a Supermax prison found no strong evidence that the facilities make prisons safer.
A turning tide
But the flood of prisoners being held in isolation shows some signs of cresting. More penal systems are recognizing that solitary confinement is expensive and ineffective at reducing violence, and in some states activists have collaborated with prison officials to reduce their reliance on solitary confinement.
In February, Charles Samuels, Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testified before the U.S. Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Spurred in part by a hearing held in 2012, the Bureau of Prisons has reviewed its use of restrictive housing, Samuels said according to a transcript of his testimony.
The Bureau of prisons has since decreased the number of inmates held in restrictive housing, Samuels said.
“Over the past year, we have accomplished a great deal in terms of reviewing, assessing, and refining our approach to putting inmates in restrictive housing,” Samuels said during his testimony. “We believe that the inmates in restrictive housing are there for the right reasons and for an appropriate duration.”
Samuels said restrictive housing is necessary to effectively run the bureau’s prisons and that most prisoners are never placed in restrictive housing. For those who are, it is often for only brief periods of time.
New York recently restricted the use of solitary confinement for women and minors, and other states have greatly reduced their use of solitary confinement. Mississippi, for example, has decreased the number of inmates held in solitary by 75 percent.
The GAO reviewed five states, Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio and Maine, that have cut the number of their inmates in segregation. Each state reported no significant increase in violence.
Schlanger says the restrictions on solitary confinement recently put in place in several states didn’t happen by accident. “I think there’s been a huge political movement to inform people that there are other ways to do things,” she said. The closing of the Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois earlier this year, for example, “was the result of an enormously focused campaign,” Schlanger said.
Simmie Baer, chair of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, has a more prosaic explanation for some states’ shift away from solitary confinement: money.
“I don’t think this is a really humane country,” she says. “I think they realize it’s cheaper not to have people in solitary.”
Holding inmates in restricted housing is considerably more expensive than ordinary housing. A year spent at Tamms, for example cost more than $60,000, compared to an average of $22,000 for a year in other prisons, according to a statement by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.*
At four federal facilities cited in the GAO report, segregated housing cost between $20 and $130 more per prisoner per day than general population units. A day spend in the segregated housing unit at the Federal Correctional Complex, Florence, costs about $216, compared to about $85 for a day in the same institution’s general population unit.
But solitary confinement can exact another, more human cost.
The science of solitary
Growing scientific evidence has corroborated the conclusions of America’s first experiment with solitary confinement: the experience can be both psychologically and physiologically damaging.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, a panel of speakers gave presentations about the legal, clinical and neurobiological components of solitary confinement.
Huda Akil, professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan, described the effects of solitary confinement on the brain. Although there have been few scientific studies about the impact of solitary as a whole, there has been abundant research on each of its components, such as isolation from other humans, limited activity, limited interaction with the natural world, limited visual stimulation and limited physical contact.
“Each one is sufficient by itself to change the brain and change it dramatically,” Akil said during her presentation. Those changes include alterations to the physical structures of the brain. She suggested thinking of the brain as a tree: A healthy brain is like a tree in spring, with buds, blossoms, fresh leaves and all the growth and activity of the season. The brain of a person subjected to solitary confinement, Akil said, is like a tree in the middle of a harsh winter.
The hippocampus, a brain area involved in memory, spatial recognition and control of emotion, shrivels when people experience repeated, severe stress, Akil said.
“It looks like winter in their brain,” she said.
To draw a distinction between the psychological and the physical repercussions of solitary confinement is, in Akil’s view, inaccurate. “There are definitely physical consequences of these experiences that are going to be documentable,” she said.
Those consequences are readily apparent in the case of Sam Mandez.
When Mandez was 14 years old, an elderly woman was murdered in her home in Colorado. Four years later Mandez was arrested. Although the jury at his trial did not believe he had harmed the victim, and despite his being a minor at the time of the crime, Mandez was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, according to the ACLU.
In 1998 Mandez was placed in solitary confinement after several non-violent offenses, and he has remained in some form of solitary ever since.
“Sam appears to be the most mentally ill person in our department of Corrections,” Baer says, “and he started out not ill.”
In 2012, Mandez was placed in a new “Residential Treatment Program” designed to provide mental health care to mentally ill Colorado inmates. According to the ACLU, however, during his first six months in the program, Mandez spent more than 22 hours per day in his cell and received fewer than 15 minutes a week of individual therapy.
Mental illness in prisons
Mentally ill prisoners are particularly vulnerable to the challenges of solitary confinement. In 2012 there were more than 350,000 people with severe mental illnesses in U.S. prisons, about 10 times the number with severe mental illnesses in state psychiatric hospitals, according to a recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Between 30 and 50 percent of those in segregation units are mentally ill, Fettig says, and solving the problem of solitary confinement will require that Americans “end the practice of overusing our corrections system as a social safety net.”
The consequences of solitary confinement are not confined to the prisons: The vast majority of those held in solitary confinement are eventually freed, sometimes going directly from solitary confinement into their communities.
“Those who don’t kill themselves, frankly are so damaged that problems occur,” Fettig says.
In March 2013, Colorado prisons director Tom Clements was killed by Evan Ebel, a parolee who had been released directly from solitary confinement.
An unclear picture
Despite the mounting evidence that solitary confinement can do lasting harm to inmates and is largely ineffective at stemming prison violence, information on the true prevalence of solitary across the nation remains scarce.
The Vera Institute of Justice is a nonprofit center dedicated to justice policy and practice. The institute has partnered with several states to assess and seek ways to reduce the states’ use of solitary confinement. In February, Vera Institute president Nicolas Turner submitted written testimony to the U.S. Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
In his testimony, Turner highlighted the lack of dependable statistics on solitary confinement: “to date there are no reliable national statistics on populations in different forms of segregation. Additionally, the current BJS census does not include segregated populations in jails or Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, so the size of this population is completely unknown.” Although the census, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics every five years, does include some information on solitary confinement, that information is not readily available on the BJS website. The data can be accessed at the website of the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research but requires the creation of an account.
Fettig says it is not uncommon for the prevalence of solitary confinement in states to be unclear “because in many states, although solitary is practiced across the board in every corrections system, it’s not something that people know about.”
Where change is occurring, Fettig says, it’s the result of civil society advocating for change and a receptive corrections system.
“I think there’s no question that to change our practices we have to treat mentally ill people differently,” she says, “and not expecting a punitive system to do the job of a public health system. It’s set up to fail.”
*An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Sen. Dick Durbin.