Isolation Cells Empty After Change in Solitary Confinement Use

By Christopher Zoukis

Picture solitary confinement — a.k.a. “the SHU.” Isolation, loneliness, deprivation. A place where a prisoner might be alone for up to 23 hours per day, in a windowless room, with non-contact visits from behind glass. You might imagine that this form of punishment is used only when absolutely necessary, for the worst offenders and rule breakers inside prisons. But that’s not the case, and too many inmates have been subjected to this harsh form of treatment unnecessarily. On any given day, 100,000 prisoners across the US are held in solitary.

Thankfully, some states are beginning to realize that the SHU is no place to just put prisoners arbitrarily. It cannot be used a response to overcrowding, to a prisoner mouthing off or disobeying orders, or as a location for someone who has been victimized, therefore literally punishing the victim. Nor should solitary be used as a place to house inmates that are suspected of gang involvement and held indefinitely, regardless of proof.

In a significant number of cases, inmates placed in solitary suffer from mental health issues—which may have gone undiagnosed or untreated. Sometimes SHU is used as protective measure for those places there—and this can include disabled or transgendered prisoners — which isolates individuals who do not deserve punishment.

But there is a dawning realization about the wrongness of the misuse of solitary confinement, and action is starting to take place.

In the year since California laws changed on how solitary confinement can be used—after inmate hunger strikes brought attention to the issue—the numbers of inmates in Solitary Housing Units has been cut by two-thirds. That number includes 1,226 inmates released from solitary at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California.

Any SHU term must now be based on an inmate’s behavior, such as committing a violent offense. Problematic in the past has been basing SHU terms solely on the words of confidential informants who accused inmates of possible gang involvement. Cases like these should no longer go forward on this basis. This is good news for those at the prison, and their loved ones. Pelican Bay is known for its high use of solitary confinement, with more than 500 prisoners having spent 10 years in solitary, and more than 75 prisoners doing more than 20 years. The rule changes mean a big difference in how the prison will operate.

The use of solitary confinement has been under scrutiny of late, and for good reason. California is not the only body to recognize and act on the issue. Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system in January, and stated that it could not be used for low-level infractions. Other states, including Illinois, Oregon, and New York have also made moves to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary. Many activist groups have spoken out against the misuse of solitary confinement.

These types of actions are important. Harsh punishment for the sake of punishment accomplishes nothing. Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging. It’s been shown to cause anxiety, insomnia, social withdrawal, depression, and a wide range of other severe symptoms. There are also higher incidences of self-harm. Research has also shown there are links between confinement and higher levels of recidivism. Housing prisoners this way is also significantly more expensive. Throwing inmates into the SHU with improper bases for doing so doesn’t lead to safer, stronger communities—but the opposite. We need to ensure that measures like SHU terms are kept to a minimum, and used only when absolutely necessary, in the most extreme cases. Focus should be on rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates, and preparing incarcerated individuals to re-join society, knowing how to live within it, not to be isolated from—and afraid—of it.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com