Solitary Confinement in US Supermax Prisons Is Torture, Experts Say


Earlier this year, my prison pen pal “Conway” was confined to the segregated housing unit (SHU) in his California supermax prison. He told me he was targeted for showing leadership ability (he had been mentoring at-risk youth and trying to defuse conflicts among inmates). To justify putting him on restricted status, the prison misidentified him as having connections to a white gang. Conway is serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods. On the SHU, he is still allowed to receive a limited number of books and writing materials, plus non-contact visits.

In his latest letter, he asked me to send copies of two articles that I’ve linked below. Both describe in horrifying detail the long-term psychological damage produced by solitary confinement, a punishment whose use has skyrocketed in US prisons in the past two decades. (Read Conway’s poems about his stints in solitary here.)

Atul Gawande is a bestselling author, journalist, and Harvard-educated surgeon, and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. His article “Hellhole” from the March 30, 2009 New Yorker thoroughly documents the evidence that solitary confinement is a form of torture. Because of its permanent traumatic effects, it is also worse than useless at solving disciplinary problems in prison. Especially since those problems are partly the result of our tough-on-crime policies:

…Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement….

…Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison’s supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose “a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness.” In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn’t make everyone crazy. The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinement units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all. At the same time, other states had just a tiny fraction of their inmates in solitary confinement. In 1999, for example, Indiana had eighty-five supermax beds; Georgia had only ten. Neither of these two states can be described as being soft on crime.

At the same time as the US experienced its supermax building boom, Britain was trying the opposite strategy on its violent criminals and IRA terrorists, with positive results:

…The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment….

So…treating prisoners like human beings rehabilitates them, and locking them in sensory deprivation cells destroys them. Hard to believe, huh? Only in America.

The other article worth reading is a May 2008 report written by Laura Magnani for the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker social justice organization), “Buried Alive: Long-Term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons“. The report found that prison officials imposed solitary confinement and other contact restrictions in an arbitrary way, for indeterminate time periods, and often disproportionately targeted prisoners of color. Magnani writes:

Solitary confinement is known by various names in prison systems, depending on the facility: supermax units, management control units, secure housing units (SHU), closed custody units, separation, special management units (SMU), Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) and the Adjustment Center. This report will focus on the use of long-term isolation.

Generally in correctional settings, there are two types of segregation: disciplinary and administrative. Disciplinary segregation, referred to by prisoners as “the hole,” is applied as a short-term punishment for breaking prison rules. By contrast, administrative segregation is reserved for those prisoners deemed to pose a serious risk to other prisoners, and is carried out often, but not exclusively, in independent, supermax facilities.
Although both types of segregation are thought to have a sensory deprivation environment, it is often the case that they constitute a sensory overload, with yelling, clanging of doors, loud commands shouted by staff, etc. Conditions in these units also involve severe loss of privileges, such as access to phones, showers, and outdoor recreation. The difference is that administrative segregation is now being used over extended periods of time (six months to several years), sometimes for the person’s entire sentence….


Prisoners in supermax units often are confined alone in single cells; two prisoners are often held in 6’ x 10’ cells. (If there is anything worse, or perhaps more dangerous than isolation, it is isolation and idleness with a cellmate.) The cells contain only the most basic of accommodations, generally a double bunk bed, a toilet and sink, and possibly another protruding slab for a desk. Prisoners describe either an “eerie silence” in the units, stemming from the cells being entirely soundproof, or the opposite: a din of constant noise—including yelling and screaming—twenty-four hours a day. Most cells have no windows and it is impossible for a prisoner to know whether it is night or day. Prisoners often complain of the lights being left on twenty-four hours per day, causing them to lose track of time entirely. Of course, without windows, confinement in the dark would be even worse.

Contact with other human beings is extremely limited. Prisoners eat alone in their cells and are permitted to exercise alone in a cage or concrete room for approximately 30 minutes a day. Most interaction with staff occurs through a slot in the steel door through which food and other items are passed to the prisoner. Cell “shakedowns” are common, and prisoners are routinely strip searched before leaving their cells for any reason and again upon their return. These searches frequently include body cavity searches. Educational or rehabilitative programming is rare. They are not permitted to hold prison jobs. Visits, telephone calls, and mail are severely restricted and reading material is censored. Access to prison “programs,” such as classes, AA groups, or counseling is nonexistent.

A common practice in these units is “cell extraction.” This is a procedure, used at the discretion of the prison administration, where prisoners are confronted with from four to six riot-clad officers, batons drawn, descending upon the prisoner, often hog tying him/her, and removing him/her from the cell. This could be precipitated by something the prisoner is alleged to have done, or by information the prison has gathered suggesting some kind of security breach that inspires maximum force. We name it here as a “condition,” because it appears to be part of the landscape of this form of harsh punishment….

Conway is currently on indeterminate Ad Seg, potentially for the next seven years before he comes up for parole. The description above is sadly familiar from his letters. California currently houses over 14,000 inmates in some form of isolation.

To find out how you can help, visit the Friends’ STOPMAX website. And pray that this nation comes to its senses.

4 comments on “Solitary Confinement in US Supermax Prisons Is Torture, Experts Say

  1. gracia says:

    Hi
    its sad to know that prison life is as bad, am is south Africa and our prisons are overcrowded. and they are doing nothing about it, but for them if very nice they get to have cell phones, their own did players and ti, and the officials give them those things for cash

    He is a very good writer

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