Amid global scrutiny of solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations has equated in many cases to torture, the case of Louisiana’s Albert Woodfox is an example of how the U.S. is taking a hard look at how prison officials use “the box,” says the Christian Science Monitor. Woodfox spent more than 40 years in solitary after he was convicted of murdering a prison guard. A judge has ordered his release, but an appeals court has delayed his freedom while it reviews the case. Solitary confinement began in the 1800s as an opportunity for biblical self-reflection, but since the murder of two Marion, Il., prison guards in 1983 it has become a go-to punishment for problem inmates. No one knows the exact number, but there are an estimated 25,000 to 80,000 U.S. inmates are in solitary at any point. Both recidivism rates and suicide rates are higher for solitary inmates.
“Solitary confinement is something that ought to be used as a last resort, because I don't think it promotes mental health, so you're not creating better citizens [upon release],” says University of Pennsylvania law Prof. Paul Robinson. At the same time, he says, “sometimes there are very good reasons [for using solitary] because for some people, solitary confinement is the only responsible way to incarcerate them.” Calls for reform began as early as 2009, but have picked up pace as legislators and prison officials confront the ethics and expenses of creating large supermax prisons that rely on loneliness and despair to rehabilitate hard cases. In 2013, then-Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois closed the Tamms Correctional Center, which had only solitary units, largely because of its annual $26 million price tag. Last year, California complied with a federal judge’s order and began removing 2,500 mentally ill inmates from solitary confinement cells to less punitive isolation units.