Achieving consensus on reform of solitary confinement

Martin Horn Distinguished Lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Feb 24, 2016

Last fall, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with support from the Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation, convened a colloquium including 15 corrections agency heads and a like number of experts from the community of those seeking to reform the use of social isolation, often called “solitary confinement,” in U.S. prisons and jails. The purpose: to determine if consensus on sought-after reforms might be achieved by common agreement and without resort to litigation.

Bringing together representatives from state and local corrections agencies, plaintiff’s attorneys, and mental health experts, the gathering provided an opportunity for many to meet with “adversaries,” often for the first time, and to listen to and consider the other side’s point of view. Our intent in convening this colloquium was to try to establish a “roadmap” for reform. What resulted was a remarkable two-day experience that generated a great deal of argument and debate as well as an equally exciting degree of agreement and consensus.  As a result of the deliberations, several clear themes and areas of agreement are apparent:

  • The use of social isolation is greater than it has to be, in large measure because prisons have been called upon to do things they were never intended to do and inadequately resourced to do it, such as managing people with mental illness.
  • Persons with mental illness and other vulnerable populations who do not require imprisonment should be treated elsewhere.
  • The only criterion for confining a person to social isolation within prison should be behavior; persons should not be confined based upon their affiliation, such as gang membership.
  • When it is used at all, separation from general population should be for the least amount of time necessary and in the least restrictive conditions.
  • Separation from general population must always provide for adequate living conditions and for meaningful routine, and periodic medical and mental health assessments. Recreation should mean more than confinement to a small cage and staff contacts should not be conducted at the cell door. Adequate heat, light, and ventilation should be provided.
  • Transparency and accountability in the use of segregated housing is essential. Public confidence requires that prisons and jails no longer be dark places, hidden from public view. This will increase legitimacy and public confidence in the sound administration of prisons and jails.
  • Decisions about the use of social isolation in prison for disciplinary reasons should be made using an appropriate due process procedure.
  • Prison discipline should incorporate a continuum of measures to hold incarcerated persons proportionately accountable for their behavior and the use of isolated confinement should be the last resort. Alternatives are desirable and should be found.
  • Decisions about the use of segregation in prison for other reasons should be made by multi-disciplinary teams with a view toward improving outcomes.
  • The confinement of individuals in isolated confinement other than for disciplinary reasons should not feel punitive to the affected individual.
  • The purpose of isolated confinement must be to improve the outcome for the affected individual and to make the prison and the community safer; to that end, there must be meaningful interventions designed to address the reasons for the confinement and attainable means for the individual to transition back to the general population of the prison.
  • Wherever and whenever possible, opportunities to relieve the social isolation of the confined individual should be employed.
  • Corrections administrators and advocates for incarcerated persons must work together to obtain political and financial support for the changes needed.
  • Line corrections staff can and must be made to see the utility of reform.

These themes are reflected in the 23 specific recommendations contained at the end of the colloquium reportProceedings of a Colloquium to further a National

Consensus on Ending the Over-Use of Extreme Isolation in Prisons.