ASCA and Liman Center Release Two New Reports on Solitary Confinement

Two new reports by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School find that prison directors around the country are aiming to limit the use of what they call “restrictive housing” and what is generally known as solitary confinement. Once, prison administrators viewed isolating individuals as the solution to prison security. Now, they see it as a problem to be solved.

The 2018 Reports provide the only comprehensive, current national data on the number of prisoners in restrictive housing and the length of time they spend there. Because ASCA-Liman has done a series of these surveys, the impact of changing policies can be seen through the new numbers. The 2014 ASCA-Liman survey estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were in segregation. The 2016 Report pegged the number at about 68,000 people. As of the fall of 2017, about 61,000 prisoners were in isolation across the country.

In the aggregate, from the 43 prison systems providing data on 1,087,671 prisoners, the organizations totaled 49,197 individuals—or 4.5%—that were confined in cells 22 hours per day for 15 continuous days or more. But in one state, almost no prisoners were in those conditions. In contrast, in other states, more than a tenth of their prisoners were in segregation, according to the reports.

How are some prison directors getting the numbers down? Several systems no longer put prisoners in restrictive housing for minor rule violations, according to the report. Prison administrators have also increased oversight, so that decisions to keep prisoners in isolation require high-level approval. And many states are implementing new standards from the American Correctional Association that prohibit putting juveniles into restrictive housing and limit its use for pregnant women and seriously mentally ill prisoners.

In Reforming Restrictive Housing: The 2018 ASCA-Liman Nationwide Survey of Time-in-Cell and the related report, Working to Limit Restrictive Housing: Efforts in Four Jurisdictions to Make Changes, the directors of prison systems in Colorado, Idaho, Ohio, and North Dakota detail how they are making changes to or abolishing solitary confinement. But the picture is not uniform. In more than two dozen states, the numbers of prisoners in restrictive housing decreased from 2016 to 2018, but in 11 states, the numbers went up, according to the reports.

Two areas of special concern are the impact of mental illness and the length of time individuals spend in restrictive housing. States have a variety of definitions for serious mental illness. Using their own descriptions, jurisdictions counted more than 4,000 prisoners identified as seriously mentally ill and in restrictive housing. Not all correctional systems track how long prisoners remain in restrictive housing, according to the authors. Thirty-six jurisdictions reported on 41,000 prisoners in segregation; 80% were held for a year or less, according to the reports. At the other end of the spectrum, almost 2,000 were held for more than six years.

To learn more about these two reports read Reforming Restrictive Housing and Working to Limit Restrictive Housing or contact Kevin Kempf,; Wayne Choinski,; Judith Resnik,; Anna Van Cleave,; or Ali Harrington,