Almost 50,000 men and women are being held in prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, in breach of minimum standards laid down by the United Nations which considers such isolation a form of torture, says a new study reported by The Guardian. The report says the number of prisoners subjected to “restrictive housing”, as solitary is officially known, stood at between 41,000 and 48,000 in the summer of 2021. They were alone in cells the size of parking spaces for 22 hours a day on average and for at least 15 days. Among them are more than 6,000 prisoners in isolation for over a year, including almost a thousand people who have been in potentially damaging confined spaces for a decade or longer. The report by Yale’s Arthur Liman Center with the Correctional Leaders Association, which represents directors of all prison systems, said the nation should work to combat the form of incarceration widely condemned as a human rights violation. Even short periods of solitary can cause severe mental health problems, including depression, aggression and suicidal thoughts. Before his release in 2016, Albert Woodfox, who died this month, was the longest-standing U.S. solitary confinement inmate, cooped up for 43 years almost without break in a six foot by nine foot cell.
"Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing," finds that though levels of solitary remain shockingly high, the overall situation is improving. When researchers began the series in 2014, the number of prisoners trapped in isolation was almost twice today’s level. A growing number of states are restricting or even banning the practice. California, a state with a history of abusive solitary confinement, is considering the California Mandela Act, which would require every prison to impose strict rules on solitary, banning it for pregnant women, people under 26 or over 59, and those with mental or physical disabilities. New York passed similar legislation. The study found that three states, Delaware, North Dakota and Vermont, had no inmates in solitary in 2021. The report said that more than 1,000 people with “serious mental illness” are still being held in isolation. Black women are also disproportionately targeted. Some 30 percent of those in restrictive housing in women’s prisons are African American, compared with 20 percent of the overall prison population.