What is solitary confinement?

Solitary confinement of prisoners exists under a range of names: isolation, control units, supermax prisons, the hole, SHUs, administrative segregation, maximum security, or permanent lockdown.
Prisoners can be placed in these units for many reasons: as punishment while they are under investigation; as a mechanism for behavior modification, when suspected of gang involvement; as retribution for political activism; or to fill expensive, empty beds, to name but a few.
Although conditions vary from state to state and in different institutions, systematic policies and conditions of control and oppression used in isolation and segregation include:
  • Confinement behind a solid steel door for 23 hours a day
  • Limited contact with other human beings
  • Infrequent phone calls and rare non-contact family visits
  • Extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programming
  • Grossly inadequate medical and mental health treatment
  • Restricted reading material and personal property
  • Physical torture such as hog-tying, restraint chairs, and forced cell extraction
  • Mental torture such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures, and forced insomnia
  • Sexual intimidation and violence

Recent history of isolation

Beginning in the early 1970s, prison and jail administrators at the federal, state, and local level have relied increasingly on isolation and segregation to control men, women, and youth in their custody.

In 1985 there were a handful of control units across the county. Today an estimated 44 states have supermax facilities confining more than 30,000 people. Prisoners are often confined for months or even years, with some spending more than 25 years in segregated prison settings. As with the overall prison population, people of color are disproportionately represented in isolation units.

(AFSC's Justice Visions Briefing Paper, "Prison Inside the Prison," provides a more complete history.)

Mental health effects of isolation

Increasingly, isolation units house the mentally ill who struggle to conform to prison rules.

An independent investigation from 2006 reported that as many as 64 percent of prisoners in SHUs were mentally ill, a much higher percentage than is reported by states for their general prison populations. Contrary to the perception that control units house "the worst of the worst," it is often the most vulnerable prisoners, not the most violent, who end up in extended isolation. AFSC's Healing Justice staff worked with 60 Minutes on the production of "The Death of Timothy Souders," a riveting testimony.

Numerous studies have documented the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners giving them the name Special Housing Unit Syndrome or SHU Syndrome. Some of the many SHU Syndrome symptoms include:

  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Hypersensitivity to noise and touch
  • Insomnia and paranoia
  • Uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
  • Distortions of time and perception
  • Increased risk of suicide
  • PTSD 

If one is not mentally ill when entering an isolation unit, by the time they are released, their mental health has been severely compromised. Many prisoners are released directly to the streets after spending years in isolation. Because of this, long-term solitary confinement goes beyond a problem of prison conditions, to pose a formidable public safety and community health problem.

Solitary confinement violates basic human rights

Prison isolation fits the definition of torture as stated in several international human rights treaties, and thus constitutes a violation of human rights law. For example, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, intimidation, or for a reason based on discrimination.

For all these reasons—for the safety of our communities, to respect our responsibility to follow international human rights law, to take a stand against torture wherever it occurs, and for the sake of our common humanityprison isolation and segregation must end.