Will the Momentum to Stop Solitary Grind to a Halt Under Trump?

James Burns endures 30-days of solitary confinement. James voluntarily agreed to spend a month in solitary to expose its cruelty to the public.

In the fifth piece in the series, "Waking Up in Trump's America," solitary confinement survivor James Burns describes the barbaric practice and worries that President Trump will do nothing, or worse, to end this form of cruel and usual punishment.

On any given day there are 100,000 men, women, and adolescent youth languishing in solitary confinement right here in America — enough bodies to fill a pro-football stadium. At 16 years old, I was also one of those people.

I spent 11 consecutive months in a cell that was the size of a parking space — and though I consider myself one of the lucky ones for making it out — the cost of solitary confinement still weighs heavily on me. For many years after my release, I couldn't adjust to life on the outside. My relationships suffered greatly because the moment someone got too close to me, I would push them away. I was living in a crowded solitude, even though I was now ostensibly free. It took me many years to overcome the deep scars caused by my time in confinement. I am not alone in this, and I know that there are men and women with long-lasting or permanent damage to their mental health after solitary confinement. 

In recent years, research has shown what common sense tells us – and I’ve seen first-hand — solitary confinement does not make penal institutions or the public any safer. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. People become more aggressive or develop behaviors that put themselves and other people at risk. As a result, there is increasing public pressure for change and governments at the federal, state, and local levels have taken steps in the right direction in trying to reform this cruel and unusual practice.

James Burns sit on his bunk during his 30-day stay in voluntary solitary confinement.

For example, last year President Obama announced a federal ban on putting kids in solitary confinement, and the Department of Justice issued guidelines for reforming and limiting the practice, including directives to the federal Bureau of Prisons to reduce its use of solitary confinement. This was a good start, but so much remains to be done.

But I am not hopeful that the new Trump administration will continue the progress that we as a society have made on this issue or the criminal justice system in general. While it’s unclear if the new administration will roll back reforms on solitary, it’s hard to imagine that there will be any commitment to continued reform on this issue.

I spent 11 consecutive months in a cell that was the size of a parking space.

And it’s not only policy that is concerning on these issues — it's the effect that Trump has on the American psyche. I feel as if it is more important now than it ever has been for us to keep fighting for progress and reform in the criminal justice system before cruel and unusual punishment once again becomes confused with “law and order,” the watchwords of Trump and his likely attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions.

If we don't come together now then when will we? 

We have a great opportunity to stand together in these uncertain and difficult times, and I will continue to beat the drum of doing away with solitary and all other forms of draconian punishment as long as I'm alive. 

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The ACLU is paid bu the clinton foundation.

Ian Savage

Really? I've always just assumed that solidarity confinement was short (like 30 days) and rarely used.

You spent 11 months in solitary? WTF?

Surely solitary cost more and does less than normal population.

What forces are holding it in place?

Thanks for opening my eyes.


Ian, it's far more prevalent and long- term than one would think possible. Inmates stay in solitary for years, even decades. You might find this series interesting and informative: npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5584254


Albert Woodfox spent 40 YEARS in solitary. The US uses solitary to punish political prisoners. In Woodfox's case, he is an unapologetic Black Panther and he refused to be 'broken' by the guards. He organized other prisoners to stand up against inhumane treatment and to take care of their bodies and their spiritual condition. Solitary is torture.

Sarah Taylor

Isolation of any kind is horrible for humans


Don't get into trouble, and there is no need to worry about solitary confinement. I never understand how criminals have no problem committing the crime, but cry cruel and unusual every chance they get.


I hear what you're saying; some inmates have done really heinous things, and they deserve to do their time. But who does it serve to keep them isolated in a tiny cage that would drive even the best-adjusted person mad?


I understand your point, prison is supposed to be a punishment for committing a crime. But solitary confinement is a "sentence within a sentence". In other words, it's a punishment within the expected punishment. Not only is it inhumane to hold human beings in insolation, but prisoners (who also include women and children) are often subject to being beaten and raped by prison guards, especially since there are no institutions to check their power. If none of that convinces you it's wrong, then how about how prisoners who are subjected to solitary confinement are released with mental illness, and are more aggressive than others...making society LESS safe. Solitary confinement is a form of torture that has no benefits for ANYONE, including you.


Yes they committed a crime but they are still human that deserve to live in livable conditions without having to take their jumpsuits off to fold & make a pillow, having running water in the sink, not having to use the toilet for cleaning, 3 decent meals that don't look like slop/dog food & don't even get 3 meals maybe 2 cause the employees wanna be lazy & take off early, & officers that actually do the job they swore to do but instead they do right the opposite, they are a big part of the violence that goes on in prison's & they feel they have the authority to provoke the inmates & when they fight back well they slap a Violent Crime RVR & throw em in the hole, Why cause they know they can so they are as much of criminals as anyone in there but yet a inmate is suppose to learn a lesson & do better when they get out really don't think so they are only learning more hate & to be more violent cause all these Prison's are beyond HELL!! They are denied Medical Treatment, Proper Dental Work, Protection, etc... They too have rights that are violated against the law more than you know... Now if something would get done about all the BS that goes on up in these Jails & Prison's, get people in there that actually will do their freakin job by the law than I believe no I know there would be less crimes committed once they are released!! "Don't Judge Wat You Don't Understand"


I have read this and read stories like this, and even though I have not shared your experience nor anything close to it, I feel horrible for the things they did to you, your mental health is one of the many things and one of the most important things that drive us, I hope that your scars have healed and I hope no one ever has to deal with solitary confinement, thank you for shining the truth on me

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