Typical Long-Term Solitary Prisoner: Young, Black and Male

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The demographic profile of people placed in long-term solitary confinement differs substantially from that of the general prison population, reports an article published in Justice Quarterly.

People sent to long-term confinement are disproportionately young, male, Black and experience mental health issues, according to an examination of administrative records from the Florida Department of Corrections.

The article’s four authors — Daniel P. Mears, Jennifer M. Brown, Joshua C. Cochran and Sonja E. Siennick — intended to address knowledge gaps in solitary confinement research. Focusing on a particular form of punishment — what they term “extended solitary management” (ESM), or the long-term solitary confinement of individuals deemed excessively violent — the authors argue researchers know little about ESM “placement disparities,” or the populations most likely to be placed in ESM.

“There is, in short, a need for research that responds to calls to shed light on placements and disparities in this extreme form of incarceration,” the authors write.

“[The study] presents arguments for why ESM may be more likely among, and pose unique risks to, certain groups and, in turn, for the importance of illuminating which groups are most likely to experience ESM, to be placed in it early, repeatedly, or for longer durations.”

Solitary confinement has a long history.

The Eastern State Penitentiary began the practice of solitary confinement in 1829, citing the Quaker connection between silent contemplation and reform. While congregate activity eventually overtook solitary confinement as the preferred prison system, in recent decades, so-called supermax prisons have relied on solitary punishment.

These facilities have normalized ESM: the indefinite confinement of the so-called “‘worst-of-the-worst’” prisoners deemed too dangerous, predatory or disruptive to interact with the general population.

This isolating arrangement, which suspends programming or visitation for individuals, has attracted significant criticism for its inhumanity, ineffectiveness and potential unconstitutionality.

“Most prominent is the view that it causes mental health problems and is inappropriate for those who have a mental illness,” the authors write. “Many studies suggest that mental health disorders and symptomatology are widespread and greater in ESM.”

Prior literature confirms that ESM is more harmful and likely for certain groups of people. The authors identified these disparities and the reasons underlying them, finding demographic discrepancies between the ESM and general populations. While less than 1 percent of the incarcerated population was 17 or younger, 8 percent of ESM occupants belonged to that age group.

Men, too, were more likely to go to ESM, making up 87 percent of the prison population but 95 percent of all ESM stays. Racial disparities also define ESM: white people constitute 47 percent of general population stays and 24 percent of ESM placements, while Black people compose 43 percent of the general population and 63 percent of ESM stays.

Most Solitary Residents Have Mental Health Issues

Most significantly, individuals with mental health needs were more likely to be assigned to ESM.

Fewer than one percent of individuals in general population housing experienced placement in a mental health unit, compared to 6 percent of ESM individuals. Educational disparities also surfaced: while the ESM population had the equivalent of a fifth-grade education level, individuals in the general population had, on average, a seventh-grade level.

Although the ESM population was slightly more likely than the general population to have had no prior prison admissions, the percentage of ESM individuals sent to prison for a violent offense was substantially greater than that of the overall prison population.

“Implications of these findings extend along several directions,” the authors write. “They underscore that multiple disparities — including age, gender, race and ethnicity, mental health, and education — may influence who experiences long-term incarceration in isolation.”

The authors also advance several theories about the reasons underlying ESM placement disparities.

“Limited staffing may preclude the ability to take stock of unique considerations for particular incarcerated persons and contribute to perceived or actual violence that provides grounds for ESM placement,” the authors write. “Such factors may play different roles in ESM placements for some groups.”

Racial stereotypes, the authors write, create the false impression that some populations are exceptionally aggressive, predisposing them to ESM placement. Inadequate training in working with the youngest incarcerated individuals might provoke defensive behavior, leading to their disproportionate placement in ESM.

The authors argue that efforts to address ESM disparities, as well as the inhumane practices of long-term solitary confinement, will require improved prison databases, many of which currently lack the specificity to assist researchers and policymakers.

“Many prison systems operate in the dark about what is leading to their use of ESM, solitary confinement in general, and other types of restrictive housing,” the authors write. “Improved data collection and analysis infrastructure in prison systems should help to alleviate this problem.”

To read the article’s abstract, click here. The full copy is available for purchase only. It will be available free for a limited time only to journalists, who can request a copy by contacting Stephen Handelman, TCR editor, at shandel@ix.netcom.com.

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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