Prison Administrators: Time to Reconsider Solitary Confinement

With the release of a new study that helps quantify the scope of solitary confinement in America, the Association of State Correctional Administrators is actively discussing ways to rein in the controversial practice.

With issues such as police brutality and mandatory minimum sentences increasingly raising questions about aggressive law enforcement and corrections tactics, a shifting political tide on those issues isn’t terribly surprising. But a particular organization’s support for change might be.

Last week, the Association of State Correctional Administrators called for new limits on the aggressive use of isolation strategies in prisons as it released a new report, Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison. The research, conducted with Yale Law School, documents the use of administrative segregation—defined as removing a prisoner from the general prison population to remain in a cell for 22 to 23 hours a day for 30 days or more—throughout the U.S. prison system. The survey of state and federal corrections officials found that 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were held in segregation in 2014. (The survey did not include local jails, juvenile facilities, or federal military or immigration detention facilities.)

Research Limited

ASCA noted that research on the scope of solitary confinement has typically been hard to come by, with the last study of this kind taking place a decade ago.

“Even as a national outcry has arisen about isolation, relatively little information exists about the actual number of people held in restrictive housing, the policies determining their placement, and whether and how conditions vary in different jurisdictions,” ASCA noted in a news release last week [PDF].

The survey revealed a desire by those active in prison administration to move away from an aggressive approach to solitary confinement.

“Having current information is one contribution of this report,” the report states. “So is the documentation of the commitments of correctional officials, nationwide, to reduce these numbers dramatically. Thus, directors of prison systems believe that these numbers are ‘wrong’ in the sense that they are or will soon be out-of-date, based on their plans to cut back on the use of isolation and to change the conditions in it.”

ASCA notes that prison directors have a variety of reasons for moving away from solitary confinement, including the high costs associated with isolation, as well as its effects on the well-being of both staff and prisoners. But as prison officials reconsider solitary confinement, some challenges have become apparent.

“We are trying to get the answers to ‘How long is long enough?’ and ‘How long is too long?’” said George Camp, ASCA’s co-executive director, in comments to The New York Times. “It might not be something we’re going to be able to eliminate because there are some very dangerous people in prison who have demonstrated that they’re a danger to others in prison.”

Despite those concerns, ASCA has taken an active role in scrutinizing the practice. Last year, the group helped to formulate the United Nations “Mandela Rules,” which call solitary confinement lasting longer than 22 hours per day over more than 15 consecutive days “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” Those rules—named for the late South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, some of it in isolation—were adopted in May by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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