Over the last two decades, the use of solitary confinement in U.S. correctional facilities has surged.
Before 1990, “supermax” prisons were rare. Now, 44 states and the federal government have supermax units, where prisoners are held in extreme isolation, often for years or even decades. On any given day in this country, it’s estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are held in isolated confinement.
This massive increase in the use of solitary has happened despite criticism from legal and medical professionals, who have deemed the practice unconstitutional and inhumane. It’s happened despite the fact that supermax prisons typically cost two or three times more to build and operate than traditional maximum-security prisons. And it’s happened despite research suggesting that supermax prisons actually have a negative effect on public safety.
As fiscal realities are forcing us to cut budgets for things like health and education, it is time to ask whether we should continue to use solitary confinement despite its high fiscal and human costs.
This briefing paper provides an overview of the excessive use of solitary confinement in the U.S. and strategies for safely restricting its use.
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