Solitary Confinement

Issue Overview

In 2005, U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in some kind of segregated housing.1 A prisoner in segregated housing will generally spend 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell with scarce meaningful human contact or recreational activities. “Administrative and disciplinary segregation” and “restrictive housing” are the terms generally used for this type of isolation in correctional settings.

There are a range of reasons someone can be placed in solitary confinement, including in response to violence or other serious security threats.  However, the Vera Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project found 85 percent of prisoners were sent to disciplinary segregation for minor rule infractions in Illinois.2 Common violations included being out of place, failing to report to an assignment, and refusing an order. Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological and physiological effects of long-term segregation.3 Prisoners in solitary confinement are sometimes released directly from isolation to their communities upon completion of their sentence. One study found that prisoners freed directly from solitary confinement cells to the community had recidivism rates that doubled those of prisoners who were given a period of transition into the general prison population before release.4

In 2015, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) undertook a nationwide study to document the number of incarcerated persons placed in solitary confinement and the conditions they face.5 The study revealed that forty-two jurisdictions do not limit the duration of solitary confinement and that some fail to record the length of time that an individual is held in segregation.6 In some situations, the study revealed a length of segregation exceeding three years.7 The study also showed that over 80 percent of incarcerated persons placed in administrative segregation or restrictive housing were confined for all but a single hour of the day and were highly limited in their social interaction with both the general prison population and their family and friends in the community.8

The ASCA study illustrates a growing trend to limit the use of segregation in state and federal prisons. From January 2012 to January 2016 the federal Bureau of Prisons reduced its total number of prisoners in restrictive housing by nearly a quarter and other states have reported reductions of up to 50 percent.9 In some cases, these states have utilized assistance to address their overuse of restrictive housing through independent experts available through the National Institute of Corrections as well as nonprofits like the Vera Institute’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative.10 By employing promising alternatives and strategies jurisdictions have not only reduced their use of segregation, but have also tracked concurrent reductions in the use of force on prisoners and the number of prisoner grievances.6


Prison Fellowship believes that developing pro-social prison communities is paramount to public safety—both inside and outside of prison fences. Part of creating safe and constructive culture inside prisons includes removing individuals who place themselves or others in danger.  This removal process should be a last resort to other interventions and must be temporary with a clear and achievable path back into the general prison population. We are encouraged to see the growing number of corrections officials proactively seeking to limit the use of solitary confinement.

We should never lose sight of a person’s God-given dignity and their need for fellowship.  Men and women who are isolated for legitimate security reasons should be afforded the maximum opportunity possible for interaction with other human beings, including communication with family and mentors, and access to books and other productive activities.  Skilled wardens and corrections officers should welcome oversight, performance measurements, and independent review to ensure any limited use of restrictive housing increases safety in the prison and the safety of the community upon prisoners’ reintegration.

Prison Fellowship has endorsed the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (H.R. 1854 and S.993), which allows the Attorney General to award resources to correctional institutions to develop alternatives to solitary confinement.


Prison Fellowship’s Senior Vice President of Advocacy & Public Policy Craig DeRoche’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution during February 2015 hearing entitled Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences.


1 U.S. Dep’t of Just., Off. of Just. Programs, Bureau of Just. Stat., Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2005, (last visited Feb. 20, 2016).

2 Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights of S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 112th Cong. 4 (2012) (statement of Michael Jacobson, President & Director, Vera Institute of Justice).

3 See e.g., Stuart Grassian & Nancy Friedman, Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement, 8 Int’l J.L. & Psychiatry 49 (1986); Craig Haney & Mona Lynch, Regulating Prisons of the Future: A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement, 23 N.Y.U. Rev. of Law and Social Change 477-570 (1997); Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, 49 Crime & Delinq. 124 (2003).

4 See, e.g., Lovell, et al., Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State, 53 Crime and Delinq. 633, 633–56 (Oct. 2007).

5 The Liman Program, Yale Law School & Association of State Correctional Administrators, Time in Cell: The ASCA-Liman 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison, (August 31, 2015).

6 Id. at 27-29.

7 Id. at 28.

8 Id. at 37-47.

9 U.S. Dep’t. of Just., Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing, Executive Summary 4 (Jan. 2016),

10 Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, Vera Inst. of Justice, (last visited August 19, 2016).