Liman Center Releases Updated Report on Solitary Confinement

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on all densely populated institutions, including prisons, raising new questions about the use of isolation in prisons. A new report released September 14, 2020 by the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School provides answers.

Time-In-Cell 2019: A Snapshot of Restrictive Housing is the only comprehensive, current national data on the number of prisoners in solitary confinement — or what prison directors call restrictive housing — and the length of time prisoners are housed under these conditions. As of the summer of 2019, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 prisoners in the United States were held in isolation for an average of 22 hours a day for 15 days.

Thirty-nine state prison systems provided data on 825,473 prisoners. These states reported housing a total of 31,542 individuals — or 3.8 percent of the total prison population in those jurisdictions — in solitary confinement. Across the set of 39 states, percentages of the prisoners held in isolation varied from 11 percent to zero. Four states said they no longer keep anyone in those conditions.

The length of time individuals spent in restrictive housing varied widely. The 2019 snapshot reflects that not all jurisdictions keep track. The 33 states that did use restrictive housing reported that 46 percent of the individuals held in solitary confinement were there for three or fewer months. At the other end of the spectrum, almost 3,000 people — or 11 percent of all the people for whom statistics were provided — had been kept in solitary confinement for more than three years.

Mental illness in prisons is a well-documented problem, and national standards call for limiting or prohibiting the placement of people with “serious mental illness” (SMI) in solitary. Each jurisdiction has its own definition of this term. Using their own categorization for SMI, 33 states reported a total of more than 3,000 prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement. Six jurisdictions reported that more than 10 percent of their prisoners in solitary confinement had a serious mental illness.

Racial disparities are likewise vivid in prisons. The 2019 snapshot provides demographic data from reporting jurisdictions about the racial makeup of their total custodial populations and their restrictive housing populations. Aggregating the numbers from 32 states and disaggregating by gender, Black and Hispanic men were somewhat more likely to be put into restrictive housing than white men: 43 percent of Black men and 17 percent of Hispanic men were in restrictive housing, compared to 40 percent and 15 percent respectively in the total male custodial population. Black women were much more likely to be placed in isolation than other women: 42 percent of women reported to be in solitary confinement were Black, as compared to 22 percent of the total female custodial population.

The 2019 snapshot is the fourth national survey of its kind. CLA and Liman launched these longitudinal data collections in 2014, when an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were held in segregation. The report placed that number at about 68,000 people in 2016, about 61,000 in 2018, and between 55,000 and 62,500 in 2019. Comparing percentages of prisoners held in restrictive housing in the 33 jurisdictions reporting during the last six years, the median was 4.9 percent in 2015, 4.0 percent in 2018, and 3.4 percent in 2020. What these reports document is that leaders of correctional agencies — along with legislatures and courts — are focused on reducing the use of restrictive housing, a grave problem of worldwide concern. Twenty-nine jurisdictions have considered legislation to regulate restrictive housing and 15 states and the federal government have enacted such legislation. These 15 states have limited or ended the use of solitary confinement for some subsets of populations such as juveniles, pregnant people, and those with serious mental illness. In addition, Congress and several states have imposed new reporting requirements on the use of restrictive housing.

The data for the 2019 snapshot was reported before COVID-19, which poses special risks to people living and working in all forms of congregate housing, of which prisons are a prime example. CLA is working across the country to respond to the need for medical quarantine, as contrasted with restrictive housing. COVID-19 ought not impede the work underway aiming to reduce the use of restrictive housing. In prior decades, isolating individuals was viewed as responsive to the problems of prison security. Increasingly, solitary confinement is seen as a problem to be solved.

CLA is a national organization representing directors of corrections.

The Liman Center promotes access to justice and the fair treatment of individuals and groups seeking to use the legal system. Through research projects, teaching, fellowships, and colloquia, the Liman Center supports efforts to bring about a more just legal system.