Even Prison Officials Want To Curb Solitary Confinement

The heads of prisons across the country call for a big reduction in the use of solitary.

A group representing prison leaders around the country came out strongly Wednesday in favor of severely limiting or even ending the use of solitary confinement.

In a a statement accompanying a new report called "Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison," the Association of State Correctional Administrators said it's committed to "ongoing efforts to limit or end extended isolation.”

"[C]hanges are underway at both the state and federal levels," the statement says. "Correctional leaders across the country are committed to reducing the number of people in restrictive housing and altering what it means to be there." The report does not lay out specific policy suggestions on how to curb the use of solitary, but rather takes a comprehensive look at how many people are put in solitary and various policies related to the practice.

The ASCA is composed of the heads of each state’s corrections agencies, as well as corrections leaders from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the District of Columbia, New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles County.

The new report estimates that in 2014, 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were kept in solitary. That number does not include those in juvenile facilities or in immigration and military detention, and it also does not count those in jail -- which is different from prison in that it typically holds people serving short sentences or awaiting trial.

Most jurisdictions had no fixed time limits on how long someone can be kept in solitary, and only one state imposed a one-year limit, the report said. Several states didn't even track the number of days in a row a person was held.

Prisoners in solitary confinement are generally confined alone in a cell for as many as 23 hours a day. Various human rights groups have described the practice as torture.

But at least one powerful constituency, made up of prison guards and their unions, still views the practice as valuable. As The New York Times notes, this group is likely to fight any efforts to reduce the use of solitary.

"Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis,” the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association told the Times in response to the prison directors’ statement. “It is a fact that many of our corrections facilities have become more overcrowded with a higher proportion of violent offenders than ever before, and any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or resides in these institutions.”

The report comes the same week that California announced it would end solitary confinement for thousands of inmates. The announcement resolved a class-action suit brought on behalf of thousands of inmates held in the Pelican Bay State Prison isolation wing for alleged gang affiliation. 

The state will still put prisoners in solitary for serious offenses committed while behind bars, but inmates will not be kept in indefinite confinement because of their alleged gang affiliation.

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