Nearly 50,000 people were reportedly being held in solitary confinement across the US

Nearly 50,000 people were held in solitary confinement in prison systems across the United States last year, according to a new report.

That reportentitled Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing, was co-authored by the Correctional Leaders Association and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School. Solitary confinement is often referred to as “restrictive confinement” in the prison system and is defined in the report as isolation for an average of 22 hours or more per day for 15 days or more.

The report represents the “most comprehensive attempt yet made to measure the use of solitary confinement in the United States,” notes reason. It estimates that between 41,000 and 48,000 people were being held in isolation in US prison cells as of July 2021. Of these, over 6,000 have been in solitary confinement for more than a year.

The use of solitary confinement has come under extreme scrutiny in recent years, with critics describing it as a form of torture. In 2011, Juan E. Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, said A UN committee: “Recognizing the severe mental pain or suffering that solitary confinement can cause, it may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as punishment during indefinite or prolonged pre-trial detention will, for people with intellectual disabilities or young people.”

reason notes that similar criticism dates back to 1842. That year, after a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, Charles Dickens wrote of the “immense amount of torture and agony” inflicted by solitary confinement. Dickens also lamented the fact that the isolation was largely hidden from the public, call it “a secret punishment to which slumbering humanity will not be awakened to remain.”

The debate surrounding solitary confinement was highlighted by the earlier this month Death by Albert Woodfox, who spent nearly 44 years in solitary confinement, probably the longest such period in US history. Woodfox spent 23 hours a day in his 6-by-9-foot cell. In his 2019 autobiography, Woodfox wrote of the impact isolation had on him: “Lonely.”

“In the 1980s, people promoted solitary confinement as a way to deal with violence in prisons.” said Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School. “It’s now viewed itself as a problem that needs to be solved.”

The new report notes that there has been a gradual downward trend in the use of solitary confinement. That 2016 version of the report notes that over 67,000 inmates were in solitary confinement at the time. In 2014 it was still 80,000 to 100,000. (All numbers are self-reported by prisons and jails.) In the most recent report, three of the thirty-five jurisdictions surveyed said they did not hold people in restricted accommodation. Two others said they held fewer than 10 people in such conditions.

“While the apparent decline in solitary confinement is welcome news, the fact remains that the number of people in solitary confinement should be zero.” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Decades of evidence show the irreversible physical and psychological damage that long-term solitary confinement causes. There is no justifiable reason for prisons and other places of detention to continue to use long-term solitary confinement, which is recognized as a form of torture.” Nearly 50,000 people were reportedly being held in solitary confinement across the US

Laura Coffey

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