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US prison directors’ group calls for reduced use of solitary confinement

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 10 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4765
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1 Seattle

The leading organization of US prison administrators has described the prolonged isolation of individuals in solitary confinement in US jails and prisons as a “grave problem” and called for the measure to be used less frequently and for the conditions in which isolated prisoners are held to be improved.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators said in a statement, “The insistence on change comes not only from legislators across the political spectrum, judges, and a host of private sector voices, but also from the directors of correctional systems at both state and federal levels.”

The statement coincided with the publication of a report by the association and the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, on the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement nationwide and the conditions in which they are held.1

The report estimated that in 2014 some 80 000 to 100 000 people were held in solitary confinement in US state and federal prisons. This number does not include those held in solitary confinement in jails, juvenile facilities, or immigration and military detention.

The report was released a day after the state of California settled a federal class action lawsuit agreeing to end indeterminate, long term solitary confinement in all of its prisons.2 The lawsuit was filed on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. The suit alleged that prisoners often suffered serious psychological damage from being held in isolation units for years, even though many had never been convicted of serious prison infractions.

The lawsuit alleged that more than 500 prisoners had been isolated in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison for more than 10 years and 78 for more than 20 years. Some prisoners were held in solitary solely because they were affiliated with a gang and were therefore presumed to be dangerous. Prisoners in the unit were kept isolated in cramped, windowless cells for 22.5 to 24 hours a day and were denied telephone calls, physical contact with visitors, and access to vocational, recreational, and educational programmes. Hundreds of other prisoners were held in similar conditions in other California prisons, the lawsuit alleged.

An expert report submitted to the court on behalf of the plaintiffs by Craig Haney, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that isolation placed prisoners at “grave risk” of psychological harm. Haney, who had interviewed scores of randomly selected prisoners in isolation, found that almost all reported experiencing intrusive thoughts, irrational anger and irritability, difficulties with attention and often with memory, and a tendency to withdraw socially. “Sizable minorities of the prisoners reported symptoms that are typically only associated with more extreme forms of psychopathology—hallucinations, perceptual distortions, and thoughts of suicide,” he wrote.

Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal advocacy organization based in New York City, and the lead attorney for the Pelican Bay plaintiffs, said in a statement that he hoped the terms of the settlement reached in California would lead to policy changes across the country. “There is a mounting awareness across the nation of the devastating consequences of solitary—some key reforms California agreed to will hopefully be a model for other states,” Lobel said.

Under the terms of the settlement, prisoners will not be sent to solitary solely on the basis of gang affiliation but must be found guilty at a hearing of committing a serious violation warranting isolation, such as violence against persons, threats to kill, or assault and weapon possession. Gang members who are found to have committed such infractions will no longer be given indeterminate sentences. In addition, a new unit will be created that will offer an alternative to solitary for prisoners who are found guilty of numerous acts of misconduct that do not rise to the level warranting solitary confinement.

California officials will now review the cases of all prisoners held on the basis of their gang affiliation within one year to determine whether they should be released from solitary under the settlement terms. It is estimated that the majority of such prisoners and virtually all prisoners who have been held for more than 10 years in solitary will be released to a general population setting.

The settlement comes at a time when the use of solitary confinement in US prisons has come under increasing scrutiny. US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently indicated that he was ready to review whether prison solitary confinement practices were constitutional, and in June President Obama instructed US attorney general Loretta Lynch to review the overuse of solitary confinement in US prisons.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4765


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