Skip to content Skip to navigation

Discussion: Solitary confinement in U.S. prisons

Photo: AFSC

At any given time, there are more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement in prisons across the United States—locked up in closed cells for at least 23 hours every day and deprived of human contact for months, years, even decades.

The destructive psychological effects of long-term isolation are well documented, and the U.N. Committee Against Torture has condemned the use of solitary in U.S. prisons, stating that it can amount to torture. AFSC has been working to end this shameful practice for over 20 years.

On Sept. 16, AFSC staffers Laura Magnani, Lewis Webb, and Peter Martel joined Media Relations Director Alexis Moore for "Buried Alive," a live online conversation about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Here's the recap:

History of Quakers in U.S. prisons

Quakers played a role in the development of the U.S. prison system, including the use of solitary confinement, explains Laura Magnani, director of AFSC’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program. 

Psychological impacts

Multiple studies have documented the debilitatating effects of long-term isolation—hallucinations, panic attacks, hypersensitivity, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear. 

Pelican Bay hunger strikes 

In 2013, California made international headlines when 30,000 prisoners across the state went on a 60-day hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement. Laura, who is part of the mediation team chosen by inmates to represent them, talks about the impact of the strike.

Racial disparity in solitary confinement

Although African Americans make up just 14 percent of Michigan's population, they constitute 44 percent of people in prison and 70 percent of prisoners held in solitary confinement, according to new findings from the AFSC Criminal Justice Program in Michigan, says program associate Peter Martel.  

 "A very sophisticated form of racial profiling"

Like many states, California has resisted providing data on the number and demographics of people in solitary confinement, says Laura. AFSC estimates that 90 percent of people in isolation in California are people of color. 

What are alternatives to long-term isolation? 

There are several ways that prisons can maintain safety for their prisoners and staff without solitary confinement, says Lewis Webb, program coordinator in AFSC’s New York office and a former prosecutor. 

A significant victory in California 

On Sept. 1, 2015, California announced that it would overhaul its use of solitary confinement as part of a landmark legal setlement against the state. The settlement includes prohibiting placing people in indefinite solitary confinement based solely on presumed gang involvement, says Laura.

Families are "the backbone"

Laura emphasizes that prisoners, their families, and community members played a major role in California's decision to overhaul its use of solitary confinement under a recent legal settlement.

Michigan takes steps to limit solitary confinement

In Michigan, AFSC has worked closely with the Department of Corrections on ways to move people with mental health issues out of isolation and increase access to mental health services, says Peter.

How can we support an end to solitary confinement?

Lewis urges people to advocate by talking to their elected officials. 

Laura discusses a coalition working to abolish solitary confinement in California. 

Peter describes the recently launched Good Neighbor Project in Michigan, which partners people in prison with people in the community as co-mentors.  

Why we should advocate for all people in prison

In advocacy efforts, it's important not to separate nonviolent offenders from those convicted of violent crimes, says Lewis. "We've got people sitting in isolation for decades because no one dares to lift them up as human beings," he says. 

To see additional videos on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, check out our playlist on YouTube