On June 19, 2012, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement in the United States. Testimonies made during the hearing—by a prison administrator, psychologist, lawyer, and former prisoner—all articulated the same message: in the US prison system, the lengthy application and abuse of solitary confinement is rampant.

The ACLU set up a mock solitary cell during the first-ever US congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Photo credit: US Senate

People held in solitary confinement are generally locked alone in their cells for 22–24 hours per day with one hour to exercise alone in an outdoor cage. Physical contact with other people is limited to the act of being shackled and unshackled by prison guards, and communication with other prisoners is prohibited.

Solitary confinement can be “cruel, inhuman or degrading” where it causes “severe mental and physical pain or suffering, when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely, prolonged, on juveniles or persons with mental disabilities,” according to a recent report by UN Special Rapporteur (SR) on Torture Juan E. Méndez. Nonetheless, both the US and China use the practice extensively on adults, juveniles, and the mentally ill for the respective stated purposes of prevention and punishment.

US Prevention

In US prisons, solitary confinement (known among American corrections institutions as “administrative segregation”) is employed as a preventative measure meant to ensure internal stability and security. Frequently referred to as an “inmate management tool,” administrative segregation is used when a prisoner’s “notoriety, actions, affiliations or threats may jeopardize the safety, security, and orderly operation of the facility, staff, visitors, or other inmates.” [*] Emphasizing that it is not a disciplinary measure, prisons commonly segregate not only those who commit or might commit an offense, but those who are victimized by other prisoners, at risk of committing suicide, or under investigation, as well as those identified as “vulnerable individuals” by SR Méndez: persons with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people; and juveniles.

In response to prison’s rising populations and heightened gang activity in the 1980s, super maximum-security (supermax) prisons were specifically created to house prisoners assigned to administrative segregation. The special housing units (SHUs, pronounced “shoes”) in these facilities exemplify the characteristic solitary cell: a cramped living space with a bed, desk, sink and toilet combo, and absence of natural light. Many prisons not classified as supermax facilities also adopted their own SHUs or supermax wings in order to avoid transferring prisoners to an outside facility. The Urban Institute notes that 44 states were operating supermax prisons that housed around 25,000 prisoners in 2004. Data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that more than 80,000 prisoners nationwide were living in “restricted housing,” which includes supermax and segregation units outside of supermax prisons, in 2005.

Chinese Punishment

In China, prisons use solitary confinement (禁闭) as punishment. Many Chinese prisons contain solitary cells that are used to punish prisoners who “disrupt prison management” in general and mandatory prison labor in particular. According to Article 58 of China’s Prison Law, prisons may give warnings, demerits, or solitary confinement to prisoners who disrupt prison management by disturbing “normal” order, verbally or physically attacking a police officer or other prisoner, deliberately working slowly, resisting prison labor through self-mutilation, or purposefully obstructing work procedures or tools.

The scope for punishing a prisoner with solitary confinement is overly vague and wide-ranging, according to Huang Wancheng (黄万成), a local procuratorial official who studied solitary confinement in a Hubei prison. Researching prisoners serving between 2004 and 2011, Huang found that, as a means to save trouble, some prison guards routinely punished prisoners with solitary confinement even when the circumstances were not particularly serious. He said solitary could be the result of refusing to work, having a bad attitude, or being impolite. There was also a serious problem of prisoners being put in solitary repeatedly. Huang found that 7 percent of the 661 prisoners placed in solitary confinement received the punishment two or more times, with some prisoners receiving the punishment more than 10 times.

According to SR Méndez, “solitary confinement, when used for the purpose of punishment, cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution for criminal behavior.”

Indefinite Solitude

The special rapporteur is particularly concerned with “prolonged solitary confinement.” He defines this as “any period of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days”—the point at which “some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.” He also notes that failing to inform prisoners of the length of time they will spend in solitary exacerbates their suffering.

Northern Correctional Institution requires a minimum 10-month stay in administrative segregation. Photo credit: Connecticut Department of Correction

In the US, there are no national regulations that determine how long a prisoner will spend in administrative segregation. Some states have standard regulations, while others leave the rules to the prisons. In both cases, time frames are broad and vary widely, allowing prison authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis without input from the courts. For example, the Wyoming Department of Corrections defines “short-term” administrative segregation as generally lasting less than 30 days, while “long-term” segregation generally lasts more than 30 days. Meanwhile, in Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Institute, people placed in administrative segregation are required to complete a three-stage program that takes a minimum of 10 months, or 300 days. According to a report by the Colorado Department of Corrections, prisoners without mental health issues who were subjected to administrative segregation in 2011 had spent a median of 586 days in segregation.

China’s Prison Law explicitly limits solitary confinement to 7–15 days, but terms may be longer in practice. Court yearbooks state that solitary can continue in excess of 15 days if “the danger cannot be eliminated.” In 2007, Shanghai rights defender Mao Hengfeng (毛恒凤) claimed that she was subjected to 70 days of solitary confinement. (Mao has spent many years in and out of prison for protesting and petitioning against urban development and the one-child policy.) Huang’s Hubei study found that about 13 percent of prisoners were put in solitary confinement on suspicion of committing additional crimes and that these prisoners faced relatively “liberal” stints in solitary. These stretches mostly lasted for more than a month, while some lasted for several months. Political activists have also cited conditions akin to prolonged solitary confinement during residential surveillance.

Confining Juveniles

Juvenile offenders are arguably the most vulnerable to the physical and psychological consequences of solitary confinement. Both the UN special rapporteur on torture and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrybelieve that solitary should be prohibited for juveniles, but the US and China continue to condone the practice.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez calls for a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles. Photo credit: UN

In China, some lenience is afforded to juveniles. The Ministry of Justice’s Management Regulations for Juvenile Reformatories (1999) limits the length of solitary confinement to 3–7 days, about half of the period for adults, and allows for two hours of outdoor time, double the period for adults.

Similarly, there has been some movement towards realizing the needs of adolescents in the US. Many states require youths in solitary confinement to be evaluated every 24 hours by a mental health professional (when one is available), while some states offer juveniles longer periods of out-of-cell time than adults (provided they do not “abuse” the privilege or pose a potential threat). Several states including West Virginia have banned solitary confinement as a means to punish juveniles, and Mississippi and Montana have adopted stricter regulations for its use. Earlier this year, however, California’s Senate Standing Committee on Public Safety voted down similar restrictions.

Suicide is a serious consequence of inaction. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the person is isolated or in solitary confinement. Irrespective of age, “50 percent of suicides in any state prison system—actually in California it was 60 percent—happen among the 4 or 6 percent of the population that are in solitary confinement,” said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and institute professor at The Wright Institute, at a public forum on solitary confinement held at UC Hastings College of the Law in April.

Experts and advocates have condemned solitary confinement, but the practice continues in the US, China, and other countries. The problem is due in part to a lack of political will to address the needs of incarcerated people and is exacerbated by unacceptably high rates of imprisonment. With increasing awareness and calls for reform, how much longer will governments stand alone in their acceptance of solitary?

* Wyoming Department of Corrections, Policy and Procedure #3.302, Administrative Segregation. December 12, 2011.