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Use of Solitary Confinement Faces Growing Skepticism

This past Sunday, NPR’s All Things Considered feature story focused on the growing evidence against solitary confinement. According to NPR:

"An estimated 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years.

Now, amid growing evidence that it causes mental breakdown, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided for the first time to review its policies on solitary confinement."

The federal review follows a Senate hearing last summer led by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin was moved to call the hearing by surgeon Atul Gawande’s harrowing New Yorker article, “Hellhole,” on the psychiatric impact of solitary confinement. At the hearing, corrections experts testified that while there may be some limited usefulness for solitary confinement for short periods of time, over an extended period it is usually unnecessary and exacts huge costs, both fiscal and human. Senators heard how some states have sharply limited or eliminated solitary confinement, saving money and sparing suffering. As the NPR story notes, most inmates will ultimately return to their communities – and returning them broken from the trauma of solitary has costs for communities as well.

While neither the NPR story nor the New Yorker piece discusses transgender inmates, NCTE’s testimony for the Senate hearing makes clear that solitary confinement is undoubtedly a transgender issue. Simply put, many people are placed in solitary for long periods precisely because they are transgender. Sometimes it is seen as a punishment for failing to follow prison rules about how inmates in a female or a male prison are supposed to behave. Just as often, having refused to house a transgender woman with other women, it’s deemed necessary to protect her from the men she has been housed with. As NCTE’s testimony stated, however, “It is not acceptable to trade the violence and cruelty of prison rape for the violence and cruelty of long-term solitary confinement.”

Reducing the use of solitary confinement and other especially restrictive forms segregation is one of many issues on which NCTE and other LGBT and human rights groups have been pressing the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP). We advocated for sharp limits on the use of solitary “protective custody” in federal rules to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and continue to push for stronger limits than those in the final rules. We hope the recently announced review by FBOP will lead to significant reforms at the federal level, and catalyze further state reform as well. Reforming the use of solitary is a necessary step in addressing the enormous costs of our ever-expanding mass incarceration.

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