August 9, 2022

US Prison officials push to reduce number of inmates in isolation

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Credit: David Callan/

Credit: David Callan/

By Tony Mauro, From The National Law Journal
New data gathered by state and federal corrections officials indicates that as many as 100,000 prison inmates were in solitary confinement in 2014, far higher than previous estimates.
A report issued Wednesday by the Association of State Correctional Administrators in conjunction with Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Program also says that prison officials regard prolonged isolation of prisoners as a “grave problem,” and are moving quickly to rein in the practice.
Prison officials will soon prove the high number to be outdated, the report states, “based on their plans to cut back on the use of isolation and to change the conditions in it.”
As recently as June, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put the number of inmates in solitary confinement—also known as administrative segregation—at 25,000. He made the estimate in an unusual concurrence in Davis v. Ayala. The case involved jury selection in a murder case, but because the California defendant had been in solitary for the better part of 25 years, Kennedy used the case to highlight his concerns.
“Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price” including mental illness, Kennedy wrote, expressing hope that in future cases, courts will examine and possibly recommend alternatives. Taking their cue from Kennedy, lawyers for inmates in isolation are already pressing challenges to solitary confinement in court.
The report on solitary confinement came a day after California agreed to a court settlement that requires it to drastically reduce the number of inmates kept in isolation.
Defining administrative segregation as “removing a prisoner from general population to spend 22 to 23 hours a day in a cell for 30 days or more,” the corrections officials and the Yale program surveyed prisons nationwide to obtain more accurate numbers. Jurisdictions housing 73 percent of the nation’s prisons reported keeping more than 66,000 prisoners in restricted housing—which works out to between 80,000 and 100,000 when extrapolated to include all prisons.
“Calls for significant reductions in the use of isolation come from all quarters and, importantly, from the chief operating officers of prison systems,” the report said. “Much more work is needed,” the report concluded, to “enable prisoners and staff to live and work in safe environments, respectful of human dignity.”
Yale Law School professor Judith Resnik, who works with the Liman program, said it is understandable that prison officials are joining with criminal justice reform advocates to curtail administrative segregation.
“No matter what position in government a person holds—legislator, judge or the head of an entire prison system—the shared sense is that now is the time to reject the use of isolation as a tool of prison management,” Resnik told the NLJ. “Directors of prison systems see first-hand the harms that solitary confinement imposes—for those held, the staff overseeing the process, and the communities to which prisoners return.”
She said prison officials are not just seeking to reduce the number of prisoners in isolation, but also to “change the content of ‘restricted housing,’ so as not to take away the social, human contact all people need. … There is a lot to fix, and the heads of many prison systems, in a host of jurisdictions, are talking about how to do so.”
IMAGE: Credit: David Callan/
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