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Solitary Head Count Topped 122k in 2019, Study Finds

As governments at all levels weigh how to limit the use of solitary confinement, a new report provides a first-of-its-kind analysis estimating how many people are placed in solitary, NBC News reports. The study by the watchdog group Solitary Watch, along with the Unlock the Box advocacy campaign, found that about 122,840 people in federal and state adult prisons and federal and local jails were placed in restrictive housing — informally known as solitary confinement — for 22 hours or more on a given day in mid-2019. This is about 6% of the total prison and jail population in the country at that time. Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, whose home state of Missouri counted nearly 12% of its total prison population in restrictive housing on a single day, said the report's findings underscore a "catastrophe." "Inflicting solitary on one person is a moral blight on this nation," she said. "Inflicting it on hundreds of thousands of people — disproportionately Black, brown and Indigenous people — is a disaster. We as public officials must act now to stop this widespread infliction of torture."

Solitary Watch Director Jean Casella said the report is still an incomplete picture because not all states provide their restrictive housing numbers to the federal government and local jails are not generally compelled to log incidents. The report also does not include uses of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers or youth facilities, where data is also limited. "Until a better system is developed and is mandated, what we're going to have is this snapshot," Casella said. "And since there's no penalty for not reporting to the [Bureau of Justice Statistics], we're fortunate we have this many states even doing it at all." The report relies on self-reported figures from states and the federal government's Bureau of Justice Statistics as well as a survey sent to all U.S. jails from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group. The state with the highest share of its prison population in solitary confinement was Nevada, with almost 26%, according to the report. Delaware was the only state in the report to say there were zero instances of solitary confinement in its prisons. A state Department of Correction spokesman credited this to Delaware’s overhaul of its restrictive housing policy in 2019, and said the opening of a specialized unit at the state's largest prison is treating mentally ill inmates who would have normally been held in maximum security housing.


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