How Solitary Confinement Works


Solitary Confinement Today
Harry Wu sits in an exhibit showing the exact dimensions of his solitary confinement cell  in China, on display at Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C. Wu, who was a human rights activist, spent 19 years in labor prison camps in China. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Harry Wu sits in an exhibit showing the exact dimensions of his solitary confinement cell in China, on display at Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C. Wu, who was a human rights activist, spent 19 years in labor prison camps in China. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Throughout much of history, solitary confinement was employed sparingly and for short periods of time. Today, however, inmates often languish in lockdown for years. And it's not just in the U.S. Many countries around the world toss those serving life sentences or on death row into restrictive housing, for example, where they may remain for decades. The practice is also often used excessively. Research from the Vera Institute of Justice found 85 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement in Illinois were there for incredibly minor rule infractions, such as abusive language [sources: Penal Reform, Solitary Watch].

But change is on the horizon. More people and groups are clamoring to end or severely limit the practice. Juan E. Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented a report to the UN's General Assembly in 2016 detailing solitary confinement practices around the world. The report noted a general trend toward reform.

In January 2016, then-President Obama announced the adoption of various recommendations by the U.S. Department of Justice to limit the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, including ending such restrictive housing for kids, and allowing those in solitary to spend more hours outside of their cells [source: Ordway and Wihbey]. Some states and cities have also made changes. For instance, New York City has now banned solitary confinement for inmates under 21, or those who are physically or mentally disabled.

In England (as in many other European countries), solitary confinement is rarely used. Starting in the 1980s, British authorities determined that giving their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less, would avoid turning every encounter into a test of wills, which would lead to violence. So, prisoners were housed in stable units of 10 people rather than in individual cells and could they earn privileges such as more phone time and contact visits by good behavior. "The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible," wrote Atul Gawande in a 2009 New Yorker article.

As to whether the U.S. will adopt similar strategies remains to be seen. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary — the one that held Albert Woodfox in solitary for more than four decades — George Gibson is living a similar fate. Gibson has been in lockdown since 1982, when as a teen he was part of an escape and abduction attempt with an older inmate. There are no plans for his release [sources: Solitary Watch, Cole].