One in Five US Inmates Put in Isolation Each Year

Inmates in Isolation

A correctional officer works at one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, California. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Almost one in five inmates in American prisons and jails spend time in solitary confinement or segregation over the course of a year, according to a government report, which found prisoners were more likely to encounter such conditions if they were younger, identified as LGBT or had mental health problems.

In the first survey of its kind, the US Justice Department found that about 20% of people in state and federal prisons and 18% of those in local jails said they had spent time in “restrictive housing” that separates inmates from the general population, such as solitary or disciplinary segregation between 2011 and 2012. One in 10 prison inmates had been made to spend more than 30 days in such conditions.

“It’s a tremendously important contribution to understand how many people and what kinds of people are in isolated or restricted housing in the United States,” said Judith Resnik, a Yale Law School professor who recently co-authored a report on prisoners in administrative segregation.

In the first survey of its kind, Department of Justice found that 20% of people in state and federal prisons and 18% in local jails spends time in ‘restrictive housing’.


The findings, by the Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), were released as activists held demonstrations on the 23rd of the month, in an attempt to highlight the 23 hours a day that many inmates in solitary are forced to spend without human contact.

“This practice of long-term isolation has been labeled torture by the UN and is widely acknowledged to cause severe psychological pain and even permanent damage,” Corrina Regnier and Verbena Lea, of the Together to End Solitary campaign, wrote on Friday.

The BJS survey indicated clear disparities in experiences of restrictive housing among different groups of prisoners. Its report said the conditions were “linked to inmates with mental health problems”: 23% of prison inmates and 31% of people in jail with a history of mental health issues reported being subjected to solitary or segregation, compared with about half as many inmates with no record of mental health problems.

It also found 28% of lesbian, gay and bisexual prison inmates had spent time in solitary or segregation, compared with 18% of heterosexual inmates. While almost a third of inmates aged 18 and 19 had been in restrictive housing, the rate was 20% for prisoners 30 or older.

In the survey, inmates were asked whether they were held in “administrative segregation or solitary confinement”. Definitions vary of administrative segregation, but the practice typically involves isolating inmates from the general population and limiting their privileges.

The information, collected through a national survey of about 91,000 inmates, sheds new light on the scope of restrictive housing practices in US prisons and jails. Previous data relied on internal, administrative reports, which can be less reliable because different facilities use different definitions for restrictive housing, said the report’s author Allen Beck.

Beck added that additional information is necessary to inform the status of restrictive housing, including data on the circumstances of restrictive housing and the incidents that cause inmates to be placed there.

Jon Swaine and Ciara McCarthy
The Guardian

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