According to a 2013 study by the United States Government Accountability Office, around 7% of the federal Bureau of Prisons' 217,000 prisoners are now housed in isolation units for approximately 23 hours each day. The study also found that around 1 in 100 inmates died while in isolation.
The report concluded that "Isolating inmates for 24 hours a day affects their physical and mental health and increases their chances of being attacked by other inmates." It added that there was no evidence that inmates acted out because they were isolated for so long.
In August 2015, the Washington Post reported that the number of people held in solitary confinement has increased by nearly 20 percent since 2005, with almost half of those inmates being held solely because they cannot afford to buy food when they are released from their cells.
It said that between July 2015 and June 2016, the US prison system held more than 10,000 men and women in segregation for more than 10 days. This represents about one in 100 adults imprisoned during this time period.
Many states have laws limiting the amount of time an inmate can be kept in solitary confinement before being considered for release into the general population. Some states with heavy incarceration rates have longer minimum sentences, which means that they have more time served in isolation.
Full isolation for 22–23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is inappropriate, according to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days has also been prohibited by the United Nations. Many states have adopted legislation limiting the period during which an inmate can be held in isolation.
Many people are unaware that some prisoners are kept in isolation for years at a time. The longest documented isolated confinement was 17 years by one prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. There are several factors that may have contributed to his ability to survive for so long in such conditions, including access to outdoor exercise and food that is not discarded after just a few days.
Isolated confinement prevents any contact with other people, even when it is necessary to obtain supplies or visit the bathroom. Isolation is used as a form of punishment in prisons across the world with estimates ranging from around 10,000 to 20,000 inmates per million people in total incarceration rate.
It has been estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 people are currently imprisoned in isolation across the world. This number is expected to rise due to increased imprisonment for drug-related offences combined with a growing awareness of the negative effects of isolation on mental health.
The United States is known to hold many people in isolation.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture declared in November 2014 that complete isolation for 22–23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is inappropriate. However, the committee stopped short of saying how long solitary confinement should be allowed for.
In its annual report to the UN, released in February 2015, the US government stated that only four countries have longer maximum terms for those who are convicted of a single offense: China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. These countries typically apply their sentences consecutively, not concurrently, which means that a person would actually serve his or her sentence over many years if given the maximum term for any one crime.
By contrast, the average length of incarceration for those serving a single sentence is much shorter. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 70% of all state and federal prisoners will be released at some point after completing their sentences. Of these individuals, only 8% are subject to conditions that prevent them from returning to prison if they violate the terms of their release. The other 92% will be able to reenter society.
Based on these figures, an individual who is sentenced to prison for a single offense has a better chance of being released than of being kept behind bars. This is because so many others who commit similar crimes are already being set free.
Solitary confinement, also known as "segregation," "restrictive housing," "lockdown," and "isolation," involves locking a person up for 22 to 24 hours a day without human contact. Prisoners are often housed in tiny cells no larger than 80 square feet (7.4 square meters), which are little larger than a horse barn. There, they are deprived of all physical activity, including reading, writing, and exercise. Some even have their blankets taken away.
Those held in solitary confinement tend to suffer from mental illness, especially depression. They may be placed in isolation because they are dangerous or threatening to others. Or they may be put in segregation to keep them separate from other prisoners. Either way, solitary confinement can have a devastating effect on the mind. Its use as a form of punishment is increasing; there are currently more than 7,000 people being held in American jails awaiting trial with no possibility of release. Many have been kept in isolation for years at a time.
When should you not put someone in solitary confinement? If you think that they might try to hurt themselves, then it is best to get them help before isolating them. Even if they do not go through with it, they will still feel pain while isolated. Solitary confinement can cause serious psychological problems or lead to suicide. Therefore, putting someone in isolation is never acceptable.
People who are considered threats or danger to others are usually put in isolation.
These avoidable deaths are not isolated incidents; in the United States, where solitary confinement is widely used, an estimated 80,000 individuals are detained in some kind of isolation on any given day, and over 10,000 people were released straight from solitary in a single year. Its effects on behavior and mental health have been documented by scientists as having repercussions for life after release.
The number of people held in solitary confinement has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2000, there were approximately 7,500 people held in American prisons alone in conditions of solitary confinement. By 2007, this figure had more than doubled to 15,550. The majority of these men and women (11,450) were held in facilities operated by the federal government. The other 4500 were confined within state prison systems.
Almost all states provide some form of isolation housing as part of their disciplinary procedures. Isolation cells can be found in most prisons and jails across the country. They are usually small windowless rooms measuring six feet by nine feet or less. Prisoners are placed into isolation for various reasons. Common examples include punishment for serious offenses such as murder or assault, protection of others, and behavioral issues such as resistance to control programs or sexual misconduct with inmates or staff.
Isolating prisoners from social contact violates several principles of human behavior that have been established through research studies.
On weekdays, prisoners spend at least 10 hours every day outside their cells. Prisons allow inmates to leave their cells for a half-hour for exercise three times a week, but many prisons also provide other forms of physical activity such as work crews or sports teams.
In addition to the daily outdoor exercise period, most inmates are allowed one hour a day, five days a week, when they may phone friends and family members. Many prisons also provide writing materials and computers in the inmate's room for emailing home.
Some states limit how long prisoners can be held in solitary confinement while others do not. The length of time that an individual is held in solitary depends on several factors including the crime he or she has committed and whether there is any chance they may try to escape. In some cases, inmates may only be held in solitary for several months before being moved to regular prison housing.
Once an inmate enters solitary confinement, it is very difficult for him or her to get out. Only one person is allowed into the cell at a time and even if there is no one else waiting to use the bathroom, officers will refuse to let him go.