Changing the Rules for Solitary


A “roadmap” for transforming the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons should begin with agreement that inmates should be confined for “the least amount of time necessary” and only when it is necessary to protect themselves or others, a colloquium of top corrections officials, academic experts and advocates has recommended.

“The use of social isolation is greater than it has to be, in large measure because prisons have been called upon to do things they were never intended to do, and are inadequately resourced to do it,” said Martin Horn, a former New York City Correction Commissioner and a distinguished lecturer in corrections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who reported on the colloquium's findings yesterday.

The landmark two-day colloquium was convened last fall by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College in New York, and included the heads of 15 corrections agencies around the U.S., as well as leading academic experts and advocates. The meeting was supported by the Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation.

The group issued a 90-page report, with 23 major recommendations intended to trigger widespread reform of the practice of “social isolation” in prisons—known more generally as solitary confinement.

“The purpose was to determine if consensus might be achievable about way to achieve (these) long sought-after reforms by common agreement and without resort to litigation,” said Horn, who observed that it was the first time many people on opposing sides of the debate about solitary confinement met in the same room to explore areas where they could agree.

The result, Horn told The Crime Report, was an “exciting degree of agreement and consensus.”

The recommendations included:

  • Mandate solitary confinement within prison only on the grounds of behavioral issues;
  • Exclude persons with mental illness and other vulnerable populations;
  • Limit periods of social isolation to “the least amount of time necessary and in the least restrictive conditions”;
  • Ensure adequate living conditions, a meaningful routine, and periodic medical and mental health assessments for anyone placed in social isolation;
  • Ensure transparency and accountability in the use of segregated housing;
  • Whenever an individual is confined for non-disciplinary reasons, the confinement “should not feel punitive” to the affected individual.

The group agreed that “the purpose of isolated confinement must be to improve the outcome for the affected individual and to make the prison and the community safer.” But abuses of the practice could be prevented by establishing “multi-disciplinary teams” in the corrections environment that could make informed decisions about the use of segregation, and also establish “attainable means” for the confined individual to return to the prison general population.

The report called on both corrections administrators and advocators to “work together to obtain political and financial support” for making these changes.

But Horn noted that many of the corrections chiefs said they planned to begin enacting some of the administrative changes over the next year.

To see the complete report, please click HERE.

Editors Note: For additional reading, see TCR's July 3, 2015 storyLimits on Juvenile Solitary Confinement Edge Towards Law in California.”

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. Readers' comments are welcome.

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