Estimated 55,000 Inmates Confined to Solitary Last Year: Study

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Harlem, NY protest against solitary confinement. Photo by Felton Davis via Flickr

An estimated 55,000 to 62,000 individuals were held in solitary in U.S. prisons last year, according to a report by the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School.

The study, which provided a snapshot of the incarcerated population as of summer 2019, based its estimate on data provided by corrections authorities in 39 states. It provided a baseline for exploring how the use of “restrictive housing” put prisoners in densely populated spaces at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“COVID-19 has put the spotlight on all densely populated institutions, prisons included,” the researchers said.  “ COVID-19 raises new questions about the use of isolation in prisons.

“Knowing what was happening before COVID is key to evaluating the responses.”

Although fewer women are placed in solitary confinement than men, the study found that Black women were disproportionately represented in the restrictive housing population.

Black women were much more likely to be placed in isolation, the survey  found.

Black women comprised 42.1 percent of those held in solitary but they represented only 21.5 percent of the estimated 58,000 women incarcerated in the  states that responded to the survey’s demographic questions.

Restrictive housing or solitary confinement is defined as “separating prisoners from the general population and holding them in cells for an average of 22 or more hours per day, for 15 or more continuous days.”

The percentages of the prison population held in isolation “varied from 11percent to none, as four states said they no longer keep anyone in those conditions,” the researchers said.

Almost 3,000 individuals had been kept in solitary confinement for more than three years.

The CLA and Arthur Liman Center sent 81 questions based on the total custodial population as well as the population held in restrictive housing, as labeled by these standards. Out of the 50 states, 39 responded.

Because the 2019 survey only received information about  58 percent of prison populations across the nation, they estimated that, based on data gathered from the previous years’ studies, between 55,000 and 62,500 individual prisoners were held in restrictive housing last year.

Prolonged time in solitary confinement can seriously damage the mental health of inmates.

The researchers noted that despite standards barring those with “serious mental illness” from being placed in isolation, 33 of the state prisons reported that more than 3,000 prisoners in solitary confinement had a serious mental illness.

Black men made up 40.5 percent of the total prison population, but 43.3 percent of the population in restrictive housing, the survey found. Hispanic men comprised 15.4 percent of the total prison population and 16.9 percent of restrictive housing.

In contrast, white men, who made up 41.4 percent of the total custodial population, but only 36.9 percent of the total restrictive housing population.

The report said there is a push to reduce the use of restrictive housing in prisons, following a slight downward trend in the total population of restrictive housing since 2014.

Some 15 states have “limited or ended” the use of solitary confinement, and 29 jurisdictions that have considered it.  This new restriction is mostly for certain subsets of people such as children, those who are pregnant or have a serious mental illness. In fact, out of the 361 pregnant prisoners reported in 31 different jurisdictions, only one was put into restrictive housing, the report shows.

Out of the 39 state jurisdictions that reported data, Colorado, Delaware, North Dakota and Vermont no longer place prisoners in the report’s definition of restrictive housing. Additionally, several state legislatures in New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico are pushing for reduced use of restrictive housing.

Some of these new guidelines, for example in New Jersey, prohibit the use of restrictive housing unless there is a “substantial risk of serious harm” to the prisoners or others in the prison or the use of restrictive housing for so long a time that it “fosters psychological trauma.”

Because COVID-19 is spread easily between interpersonal contact, those living in congregate prisons are even more at risk. Although restrictive housing could almost be a way to supply the need of medical quarantine, the report states that “COVID-19 ought not impede the work underway aiming to reduce the use of restrictive housing.”

Download the survey here.

See also: Digging Our Way Out of the Hole: A Safe Alternative to Solitary, by Jeremiah Bourgeois, The Crime Report, Sept. 16, 2020

This summary was prepared by TCR news reporting intern Emily Riley

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