Back to News & Commentary

Turning the Corner on Solitary Confinement?

David Fathi,
Director, National Prison Project
Share This Page
February 24, 2011

This week, Colorado state Sen. Morgan Carroll and Rep. Claire Levy introduced a bill that would substantially limit the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. S.B. 176 would restrict solitary confinement of prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities, who currently make up more than one-third of the state’s solitary confinement population. It would require regular mental health evaluations for prisoners in solitary, and prompt removal of those who develop mental illness. And it would significantly restrict the practice of releasing prisoners directly from solitary confinement into the community, where they are more likely to re-offend than prisoners who transition from solitary to the general prison population before release.

The shattering psychological effects of solitary confinement, even for relatively short periods, are well known. “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his time in isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” The American journalist Roxana Saberi, imprisoned by the Iranian government, said that she was “going crazy” after two weeks in solitary. Imagine, then, that 54 prisoners in Illinois have been in continuous solitary confinement for more than 10 years.

These reforms are long overdue for Colorado and for the nation as a whole. Solitary confinement is an expensive boondoggle – in Colorado, it costs an additional $21,485 per year for each prisoner. And all we get for that investment is an undermining of our public safety. The vast majority of prisoners who are forced to endure long-term isolation are eventually released back into the community, where the devastating impact of solitary confinement leaves them more damaged and less capable of living a law-abiding life.

The United States uses long-term solitary confinement to a degree unparalleled in other democracies, with an estimated 20,000 prisoners in solitary at any one time, and it’s attracting increasing criticism from international human rights bodies. The U.N. Human Rights Committee and Committee Against Torture have both expressed concern about the use of prolonged isolation in U.S. prisons and recommended scrutinizing this practice with a view to bringing prison conditions and treatment of prisoners in line with international human rights norms. And the European Court of Human Rights has temporarily blocked the extradition of four terrorism suspects to the United States on the ground that their possible incarceration in a Supermax prison, where solitary confinement is the norm, could violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Last week the ACLU urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to address the widespread violations of the human rights of prisoners in the United States associated with solitary confinement. Many of the measures we call for, such as prohibiting solitary confinement of the mentally ill and careful monitoring of prisoners in solitary for mental illness, are also part of Colorado’s S.B. 176. Colorado may be only one state, but the bill’s introduction is a hopeful sign that the United States may, at last, be turning the corner on solitary confinement.

Learn more about prisoners’ rights: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page