Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is the most extreme penalty in the hierarchy of incarcerative punishment. 1 Depending on the institution, length of detention and purpose, this “prison within prison” 2 has been described in many ways: administrative segregation, communications management unit, 3 control unit, disciplinary housing unit, the hole, intensive management unit, lockdown, punitive isolation, segregation, SHU (special housing unit, special handling unit, segregated housing unit, security housing unit), and Supermax (Super-Maximum Security Confinement). 4 And these “inner prisons,” 5 have come under constitutional scrutiny by the way of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, 6 and procedural due process challenges to prison conditions and special status, e.g., death row or gang affiliation. 7

The selected materials collected here represent current research and thinking about the physical, psychological and legal implications of isolation as punishment, and the policy issues behind continuing this practice in the light of national and international standards and human rights declarations. Additional bibliographic resources are noted throughout.


  • Eng Site Visit 1 (Stuart Grassian, M.D.)
    “This report describes my findings from the first, January 1999, site visit to the Attica SHU and the accompanying document review mandated by the Stipulation in Eng v. Goord, Civ 80-385S. The findings in this report are based upon a review of documents provided by the Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), including OMH records of 25 Attica SHU inmates, as well as upon our January 25, 1999 site visit and conference, and my interviews with thirteen inmates on January 26 and 27, 1999. Appendix A includes a description of the process of inmate selection as well as a list of the documents referenced in this report.”
  • Expert Testimony on Isolation at Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (2005)
    “This panel addressed the forms of isolation, when it’s used and for whom, and the effects of living in isolation and working in an isolation unit. The panel also offered ideas about how to limit the use of isolation and how to create a safer and more humane use of this extreme form of confinement.”
    • Dr. Stuart Grassian, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
      “A psychiatrist and former faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, he described the damaging psychological effects of prolonged isolation—what he calls the Security Housing Unit SHU syndrome.” 8
      Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement (Grassian)
    • Fred Cohen, Tucson, Arizona
      “An expert consultant and court-appointed monitor in several states, he addressed the rise of isolation and the special case of the supermax prison and discussed why mentally ill prisoners often end up in isolation and its caustic effects on them.”
      Isolation in Penal Settings (Cohen)
    • James Bruton, White Bear Lake, Minnesota
      “Former warden of the supermax prison in Oak Park, Minnesota, and author of “The Big House: Life Inside a Supermax Security Prison,” he discussed how he restricted the use of isolation—relying on it only for protection, never as punishment—and what he did to make that experience more humane and less damaging.”
      Statement (Bruton)

  • Justice Behind the Walls: Human Rights in Canadian Prisons (Michael Jackson, Q.C.)
    “This site is dedicated to the protection and advancement of human rights in Canadian prisons and to promote a culture of respect for the Rule of Law behind prison walls. The prison, seen as the most powerful weapon in our armory against those who would hurt us, is the part of the criminal justice system that is the least accessible to our gaze and the least amenable to public accountabilityJustice Behind the Walls seeks to open up an electronic window on the prison world, to provide both those involved in the criminal justice system and those in whose name it is invoked, with a greater understanding of the realities of the contemporary prison, to ensure that the experience of justice that sustains democracy outside of prison is not abandoned when the keeper and the kept encounter each other inside.”
  • Prisoners of Isolation: Solitary Confinement in Canada (Michael Jackson, Q.C. 1983)
    “This book has as its focus the practice of solitary confinement in Canada’s maximum-security penitentiaries, a practice that is regarded by those who have experienced it as the ultimate exercise of the prison’s power over the lives of the imprisoned. The focus on solitary confinement is not a random choice. As the ultimate exercise of state authority over a prisoner, it can be seen as a litmus test of the morality and legitimacy of the state’s dealings with prisoners in lesser exercises of authority. Indeed, that is how many prisoners see the matter.”
  • Statement of Interest of Amici in Ohio State Prison Litigation (Craig Haney, Ph.D., J.D. principal author)
    “Because of the extraordinary nature of extremely isolating ‘supermax’ confinement—including the type that has been described as being practiced at Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP)—and the significant risk of psychological harm it creates for some prisoners, we conclude that these conditions impose an ‘atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.’ Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995). Indeed, long-term solitary confinement, in widespread use over a century ago, was abandoned largely because of its harmful psychological effects. Especially in its more modern supermax form, there is nothing ‘typical’ about it. In addition, the literature that we review clearly documents that supermax confinement imposes a significant ‘hardship’ in the form of grave psychiatric and psychological risks to prisoners. No study of the effects of solitary or supermax-like confinement that lasted longer than 60 days failed to find evidence of negative psychological effects. Moreover, research raises significant doubts about the ability of supermax prisons to achieve their goal of reducing violence in prison systems. Prisoners have a clear liberty interest, as this Court has defined it, in insuring that they are not exposed to such risks on the basis of mere conjecture, or absent a meaningful opportunity to contest the basis for their supermax confinement.”


  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (U.N. 1984)
    “The Commission on Human Rights began its work on this subject at its session in February-March 1978. A working group was set up to deal with this item, and the main basis for the discussions in the working group was a draft convention presented by Sweden. During each of the subsequent years until 1984 a similar working group was set up to continue the work on the draft convention.”
  • Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement (Adopted on Dec. 9, 2007 at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium, Istanbul)
    “Recent years have seen an increase in the use of strict and often prolonged solitary confinement practices in prison systems in various jurisdictions across the world. This may take the form of a disproportionate disciplinary measure, or increasingly, the creation of whole prisons based upon a model of strict isolation of prisoners. While acknowledging that in exceptional cases the use of solitary confinement may be necessary, we consider this a very problematic and worrying development. We therefore consider it timely to address this issue with an expert statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement.”
  • Treatment of Prisoners in ABA Standards for Criminal Justice (3rd Edition 2010)
    “These Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, over five years in the drafting, were approved by the American Bar Association House of Delegates in February 2010. It is this project’s goal to provide up-to-date guidelines addressing current conditions and challenges and helping to shape the fair and humane development of the law and operation of the criminal justice system.”
    • Standard 23-2.6 Rationales for segregated housing
    • Standard 23-2.7 Rationales for long-term segregated housing
    • Standard 23-2.8 Segregated housing and mental health
    • Standard 23-2.9 Procedures for placement and retention in long-term segregated housing
    • Standard 23-3.8 Segregated housing


  • Are Prisons Driving Prisoners Mad?, Time Mag., Jan. 26, 2007
    “It’s possible that the very steps we’re taking to keep society safe and such prisoners in check are achieving just the opposite. The U.S. holds about 2 million people under lock and key, and 20,000 of them are confined in the 31 supermaxes operated by the states and the Federal Government. That may represent only 1% of the inmate population, but it’s a volatile 1%. Push any punishment too far and mental breakdown–or at least a claim of mental breakdown–is sure to follow. When that happens, a constitutional challenge can’t be far behind.”
  • Canada Questions Solitary Confinement After Teenager’s Death, Solitary Watch, Jan. 23, 2010
    “Anumber ofrecent stories in the Canadian media have challenged the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners. A December editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, titled ‘Prisons Are Not Asylums,’ [Ottawa Citizen, Tuesday December 1, 2009] notes that ‘the number of mentally ill inmates is on the rise, while health services to treat them are deteriorating.’ Prison staff, it says, ‘often resort to isolating these inmates, in order to get them under control. Isolation is not treatment.'”
  • Hellhole, New Yorker, March 30, 2009
    “The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?”
  • History of Solitary Confinement, National Geographic, April 11, 2010
    “Welcome to what is probably the most severe prison environment inflicted upon American convicts, short of execution. There are about 60 similar such prisons-within-prisons throughout the United States, according to University of Washington anthropologist Lorna Rhodes, who has studied them. By various recent estimates, prison isolation units house as many as 80,000 prisoners. In the corrections field, they go by a multitude of names — administrative segregation, special housing units, intensive management units, supermax facilities, or simply — and perhaps most ominously — control units. The latter is a particularly apt term, because exerting as close as possible to total control of a prisoner is their goal. To prison officials, they are a tool for safely confining the most dangerous and/or difficult-to-manage prisoners, and possibly motivating them to change their behavior. To prisoners’ rights advocates and some social scientists, control units are cruel and unusual punishment that can break prisoners’ psyches and possibly drive them into madness.”
  • Maine Should Pass Legislation Limiting Solitary Confinement in Prisons, HRW, Jan. 26, 2010
    “Human Rights Watch is the largest global human rights organization headquartered in the United States. For more than a decade we have documented the inappropriate use in the United States of ‘supermax’ prisons, special management units, and similar facilities in which prisoners are subjected to isolated or segregated confinement. Our reports on this subject include Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana; Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia; and Out of Sight: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in the United States. In Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness, we documented the devastating effects of isolated confinement on the mentally ill.”
  • States Start Reducing Solitary Confinement to Help Budgets, USA Today, June 14, 2010
    “State prison officials are reducing the number of offenders in solitary confinement — once among the fastest-growing conditions of detention — as budget pressures, legal challenges and concerns about the punishment’s effectiveness mount.”



  • Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana (HRW 1997)
    “In the United States, correctional authorities are relying increasingly on special super-maximum security facilities to confine disruptive or dangerous prisoners. Prolonged confinement in these conditions can be devastating psychologically. While recognizing legitimate security considerations in the housing of prisoners who break prison rules, Human Rights Watch concludes that security cannot justify conditions that constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This report is the first comprehensive assessment under international human rights law of super-maximum security facilities in the United States which house prisoners who will someday be released back into society.”
  • Lockdown in New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons (Correctional Association of New York 2003)
    “The findings from Correctional Association visits to nearly every disciplinary housing unit in New York – 49 visits to 26 lockdown units – reveal a disturbing picture characterized by emotional and physical distress, a reliance on warehousing instead of treatment, high rates of mental illness, suicide and self- mutilation, low staff moral and unsafe working conditions for prison guards and administrative staff.”
  • Locked Up Alone (HRW 2008)
    “Approximately 270 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, most of whom have been in U.S. custody for more than six years without ever being charged with a crime. Some 185 of them-including many of the several dozen individuals already cleared for release or transfer-are now being housed in prison facilities akin to and in some respects more restrictive than many ‘supermax’ prisons in the United States.”
  • Out of Sight: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in the U.S. (HRW 2000)
    There are currently more than twenty thousand prisoners in the United States, nearly two percent of the prison population, housed in special super-maximum security facilities or units. Although supermax facilities are ostensibly designed to house incorrigibly violent or dangerous inmates, many of the inmates confined in them do not meet those criteria. Supermax confinement, no less than any other, is subject to human rights standards contained in treaties signed by the United States and binding on state and federal officials.
  • Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia (HRW 1999)
    “This report reflects our attempt to give the public some of that fuller picture about certain aspects of conditions at Red Onion. Our description is based on communication with inmates and their families, information from the DOC and from press accounts and other public sources. Unfortunately, it is incomplete and despite our best efforts may fail to reflect all conditions accurately, because the DOC has prevented us from directly observing the facility and has also refused to provide some of the information we requested.”
  • Solitary Confinement at Guantanamo Bay (Center for Constitutional Rights)
    “Approximately 70% of the men imprisoned in Guantanamo are in solitary confinement or isolation. Virtually none have ever been charged, and most will never be charged or tried. Yet, they remain in ‘super-maximum security confinement’ conditions – held by a federal judge to ‘press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.'”
  • Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement (Sharon Shalev, Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics and Political Science 2008)
    “This comprehensive sourcebook brings together the accumulated knowledge and standards relating to solitary confinement and its harmful consequences. It identifies how solitary confinement may be misused and the protections that should be put in place. It is a valuable resource for prison staff and policy makers in the effort to promote the respect and protection of the rights and wellbeing of prisoners and detainees. Let us not forget that persons deprived of liberty are among the most vulnerable human beings in every society.”
  • Task Force Report on Administrative Segregation – Commitment to Legal Compliance, Fair Decisions and Effective Results – March 1997 (Correctional Service Canada)
    “In response to the Arbour Report, the Acting Commissioner of Corrections established the Task Force in June of 1996 to complete a comprehensive review of the use of segregation by CSC.” Bibliography
  • Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison (2004)
    “In this rare firsthand account, Lorna Rhodes takes us into a hidden world that lies at the heart of the maximum security prison. Focusing on the ‘supermaximums’—and the mental health units that complement them—Rhodes conveys the internal contradictions of a system mandated to both punish and treat. Her often harrowing, sometimes poignant, exploration of maximum security confinement includes vivid testimony from prisoners and prison workers, describes routines and practices inside prison walls, and takes a hard look at the prison industry. More than an expose, Total Confinement is a theoretically sophisticated meditation on what incarceration tells us about who we are as a society. ”


  • ACLU’s National Prison Project
    “The ACLU’s National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring that our nation’s prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and immigration detention centers comply with the Constitution, federal law, and international human rights principles, and to addressing the crisis of over-incarceration in the U.S. Since 1972, the Project has fought unconstitutional conditions of confinement through public education, advocacy, and successful litigation on behalf of more than 100,000 men, women and children.”
  • Amnesty International
    “Amnesty International also calls on governments to make certain that safeguards for a fair trial are fully respected for all prisoners. It demands that national laws and practices conform to international human rights standards to ensure that all prisoners and detainees are treated humanely.”
  • Bibliography: The Hardening of Prison Conditions: Supermax, Segregation, and Solitary Confinement (The Thirteenth Annual Liman Colloquium, Yale Law School March 4-5, 2010)
    “Below are only a few of many essays and cases addressing our topics. Our list is illustrative of the wealth of literature available.”
  • Canadian Civil Liberties Association
    “The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is joining with a number of other civil society groups to call for an immediate government response to the alarming increase in the use of solitary confinement in Canada’s federal penitentiaries. Statistics show that both the prevalence, and the duration, of solitary confinement have increased over the past ten years. Moreover, in the absence of adequate mental health facilities, documented cases show a pattern of using segregation as a response to mental health problems, a practice which the Office of the Correctional Investigator has called ‘[n]either safe, nor humane’.”
  • Center for Constitutional Rights
    “Since our inception in the 1960’s, when our attorneys defended protestors at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, CCR has been at the forefront of criminal justice issues such as mass incarceration, jail expansion, and challenging unjust detentions. In a country that puts more people in jail than any other country in the world, we will continue to fight the mass incarceration of millions in our nation’s prison system, as well as challenge practices such as racial profiling, immigrant detention, and discriminatory laws that lead to a disproportionate number of people of color behind bars.”
  • Human Rights Watch
    “Human Rights Watch has worked for many years to improve protection for the rights of U.S. prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, and we stand ready to assist the Subcommittee [Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law] with its efforts in any way we can. In this statement we will present a brief overview of the problems faced by mentally ill persons who are incarcerated and the human rights that are implicated. We will also offer several recommendations for Congressional action that we hope the Subcommittee will consider.”
  • Law School Clinics Serving Prisoners (AALL 2004)
    “Below is a select list of law school clinics that serve federal and/or state prisoners. The list is compiled from a search (June 2004) of the directory of clinical legal education and clinics available through the Gateway to Clinical Legal Education, and a brief search of the websites of the U.S. law schools that are members of the American Association of Law Schools. The information below includes clinics, externships, or student organizations serving prisoners or addressing death penalty cases and post-conviction relief. General criminal law and civil law clinics are not included. A list of Innocence Projects (addressing wrongful conviction) around the country.”
  • Prisoners’ Assistance Directory (ACLU’s National Prison Project 2008)
    “Guide to organizations in each state that work on prisoners’ rights issues. Disclaimer: The information contained in this document has not been updated since 2007. Some information, including contact information, may be inaccurate. The National Prison Project makes no guarantee as to the accuracy of this information.”
  • Prisoners’ Rights and Resources on the Web, LLRX, Nov. 3, 2006
    “This guide highlights resources about prisons, the people who occupy them, legal and social services for inmates and their families, issues related to incarceration and reentry, and human rights behind bars. The focus is on selected web resources and online publications.”
  • Solitary Confinement
    “This website is dedicated to examining the practice of solitary confinement in its various forms. It is designed to accompany the Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement and expand on issues discussed therein.” Resources and Links
  • Solitary Watch
    “Solitary Watch is an innovative public website aimed at bringing the widespread use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. A unique collaboration between journalists and law students,Solitary Watch’s missionis to provide the public—as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates, and prisoners–with the first centralized, comprehensive source of information on solitary confinement in the United States.” Resources
  • Supermaxed
    “An informational and educational Website about Supermax and Maximum Security Prisons . . . . The author and webmaster of ‘’ is an attorney with a possibly perverse fascination with Supermax prisons and a strong opposition to the torture and abuse of prisoners.”
  • United Nations Committee Against Torture
    “The Committee Against Torture (CAT) is the body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by its State parties.” See also International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

1 See, e.g., Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 874 (1987)(“[P]ossible punishments ranging from solitary confinement in a maximum-security facility to a few hours of mandatory community service.”); United States v. Moreland, 258 U.S. 433, 449 (1922) (“The most severe punishment inflicted was solitary confinement without labor.”); see generally History of Solitary Confinement, National Geographic, April 11, 2010 (“Welcome to what is probably the most severe prison environment inflicted upon American convicts, short of execution.”).

2 See Moran v. Kincheloe, 1996 U.S. App. LEXIS 29023 (9th Cir. 1996) (“[S]olitary confinement for twenty-three hours per day and exercise in a segregated and small yard for one hour per day, amount to a prison within the prison.”)

3 See CMUs: The Federal Prison System’s Experiment in Social Isolation (Center for Constitutional Rights)

4 See generally History of Solitary Confinement, National Geographic, April 11, 2010 (“In the corrections field, they go by a multitude of names — administrative segregation, special housing units, intensive management units, supermax facilities, or simply — and perhaps most ominously — control units.”); Solitary Confinement (Wikipedia) (“in British English as the ‘block’ or the ‘cooler’.”)

5 See Penrod v. Cupp, 283 Ore. 21, 25, 581 P.2d 934, 936 (1978) (“As one recent study of habeas corpus puts it: “If, for example, a prisoner is improperly put in solitary confinement . . . there seems to be no reason why he should not be able to use habeas corpus to be free from that restraint. The situation may be seen as a ‘prison within a prison’ and the applicant is simply released from the inner prison while being kept within the confines of the outer one.” Sharpe, The Law of Habeas Corpus 149 (1976).”)

6 See, e.g., Segregation and Solitary Confinement–Cruel and Unusual Punishment?, New York University’s Wagner’s Students for Criminal Justice Reform, March 23 2010 (panel discussion in Lives in Focus: Family Life Behind Bars).

7 See generally Relief, Under Federal Civil Rights Acts, to State Prisoners Complaining of Conditions Relating to Corporal Punishment, Punitive Segregation, or Other Similar Physical Disciplinary Measures, 18 A.L.R. Fed. 7.

8 See generally The SHU Syndrome and Community Mental Health, 12 AACP Newsletter, No. 3 (Summer 1998) (“Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian coined the term ‘SHU Syndrome.’ He examined a large number of prisoners during their stay in segregated, solitary confinement units and concluded that these units, like the sensory deprivation environments that were studied in the Sixties, tend to induce psychosis.”)

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