Solitary Confinement in the US: Cruel and Usual Punishment

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

As incarceration rates explode in the US, thousands are placed in solitary confinement, often without cause. Every day in the US, tens of thousands of prisoners languish in “the hole”. Most are prisoners have committed minor disciplinary infractions within prison or otherwise run afoul of corrections staff while only a few of them are prison murderers or rapists who present a threat to others.

By common estimate, more than 20,000 inmates are held in supermax prisons, which by definition isolate their prisoners. Perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 more are in solitary confinement on any given day in other prisons and local jails, many of them within sight of communities where Americans go about their everyday lives. Over the past 30 years, the rate at which prisoners have been placed in solitary confinement has greatly increased.

The warden and prison staff often takes advantage of their power by playing the prosecutor, judge and jury in the amount of time a prisoner spends in isolation. Children in adult prisons and jails often end up in solitary because there is simply nowhere else to put them to prevent them being victimized, leaving them without physical contact or schooling for years. Even victims of prison rape and whistleblowers are often isolated “for their own protection”, or given a choice between solitary confinement and continued sexual assault.

Unlike Europe, which has declared solitary confinement as a cruel and degrading treatment, American courts and politicians have, for the most part, failed to take a strong stand against solitary confinement. At the same time, the ACLU’s David Fathi believes that a combination of legislation and litigation, grassroots activism and investigative journalism are producing “a breakthrough in public awareness”.

Title: Cruel and Usual: US Solitary Confinement

Author: James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

Source:, 3/19/11


Student Researcher: Taylor Wright, Sonoma State University

Faculty Evaluator: Patrick Jackson, Sonoma State University