Solitary Confinement: New Report Highlights Misconceptions and Alternatives

NEW YORK – A last resort for the most violent? A way to keep jails and prisons safer? Cost-effective? Or none of the above? A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice shines a light on the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement in our prisons and jails by dispelling 10 erroneous justifications for its use and highlighting alternative practices that protect staff and inmate safety without the detrimental effects of isolation.   

As described in Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives, corrections officials regularly use solitary confinement—also known as restricted or segregated housing—not only as a punishment for violent behavior, but also for minor violations of prison rules, or to protect inmates deemed to be at high risk of sexual assault or physical abuse, or to house those awaiting the completion of an investigation or facility transfer.   

Whatever the reason for its use, the isolation—typically, 23 hours per day confined to a cell with limited human interaction, physical exercise, or meaningful activity—can lead to harmful outcomes for a person’s mental and physical health. When released, sometimes directly from solitary confinement, these effects follow people home, negatively affecting their families, communities, and chances of avoiding future involvement with the justice system. Despite its detrimental impacts, however, solitary confinement remains a mainstay of prison management and control in the U.S.   

This report identifies 10 misconceptions about solitary confinement to which many still subscribe—including the idea that solitary confinement deters misbehavior and violence or that safe alternatives to segregated housing are too expensive—and highlights alternatives that have been implemented across the country. These include “step-down” incentive programs that allow inmates held in solitary confinement to earn increased privileges for sustained compliance to facility rules, or special programming for incarcerated people who are most likely to misbehave.  

“Solitary confinement is not a cure-all for every behavioral, disciplinary, and administrative challenge behind bars, yet too many incarcerated people are still subjected to these unnecessarily restrictive conditions as a matter of routine,” said Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “As this report notes, however, a growing number of corrections officials across the country are leaving old thinking behind and implementing alternatives that are more effective, less costly, and that balance facility safety with respect for human dignity.”

The report builds on Vera’s years of experience with reducing solitary confinement and the recently announced Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, in which Vera partners with five state and local departments of corrections to safely reduce their reliance on solitary confinement. This publication is the first in a series on solitary confinement, its use and misuse, and ways to safely reduce it in our prisons and jails. This series was made possible in part by support from the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust.