WASHINGTON ― At least 66,000 inmates in state and federal prisons were held in some form of solitary confinement last year, according to a report released Wednesday by corrections officials and researchers from Yale Law School. Not only are black men overrepresented in prison compared to their share of the population, they are also disproportionately placed in isolation once they’re behind bars. In Washington, D.C., 97 percent of men in administrative segregation ― one type of solitary confinement ― were black. Because the District lacks its own prison facility, inmates sentenced there are actually held in multiple federal prisons.
The report, which is based on a national survey answered by 46 state and federal prison directors, comes at a time when the use of isolation on prisoners is under heavy scrutiny by lawmakers and judges. In June, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denounced the practice, writing that “years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.” This week, California agreed to move thousands of inmates out of solitary confinement as part of a landmark settlement.
The stress of isolation inhibits neuron formation, scientists have found, which can cause permanent changes to the brain. General concerns about the practice prompted the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which includes heads of corrections agencies, to partake in the project with Yale.
They acknowledge in their report that prolonged isolation is a “grave” problem and say that they seek to limit or end it, an unprecedented statement.
“Having the people who run the prison systems as committed as they are to prison systems running differently, and the reduction or elimination of isolation, is important,” Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School who co-authored the report, told The Huffington Post. She called the report a “statement of their commitment.”
Because not every jurisdiction participated in the survey, the researchers estimated that the number of people in solitary confinement could be as high as 100,000. That number does not cover jails or juvenile, military and immigration detention facilities.
In the fall of 2014, Arkansas reported placing the highest percentage of male inmates in administrative segregation, which is defined in the report as putting inmates in cells ― either alone or with cellmates ― and holding them there for most hours of the day for 30 days or more. Administrative segregation is often imposed when a prisoner is seen as a potential risk to other inmates or prison staff. Arkansas’ figure does not include other forms of isolation, like that used for punishment or protection.
On average, black prisoners made up 47 percent of the administrative segregation population and 39 percent of the total male prison population in 21 jurisdictions that provided demographic data. (Not every respondent answered every question in the report. Twenty-two jurisdictions provided demographic data; of those, 21 had a smaller percentage of white male prisoners in administrative segregation than in the general prison population.)
ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado, held more than half of its prisoners in solitary confinement for over three years, according to the report. An inmate at that facility told The New York Times that prisoners on his cellblock "screamed and banged on their doors for hours."
The researchers also sought to shed light on the duration and conditions of solitary confinement. "Most participants reported that inmates in solitary spend 23 hours a day in their cells on weekdays; about half of all jurisdictions reported that prisoners spent 23 hours a day in a cell on weekends," the report said.
Conditions varied widely by location. Virginia, for example, prohibited inmates in administrative segregation from having letters, paper or pens and pencils in their cells. New Hampshire banned magazines. Other states, including Montana and North Dakota, prohibited some segregated inmates from getting visits or social phone calls. Seven jurisdictions provided free televisions. North Dakota and Wyoming allowed video game consoles, Arkansas, MP4 players. But jurisdictions may limit access to activities and personal materials as punishment, and what's reported as policy does not always happen in practice.
The researchers are planning to continue the project with 2015 data, focusing on other categories of isolation. "Hopefully this report is part of several markers of a transformation in the assumptions of what is normal inside prisons," Resnik said. "There should be nothing typical about the kinds of conditions we found."
Clarification: This post was updated to explain that Washington, D.C., lacks its own prison system and inmates sentenced in the District are held in multiple locations nationwide.