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New Yale Survey Estimates Nearly 100,000 in Solitary Confinement in the U.S.

Sep 2, 2015

A new report from Yale Law School looks at solitary confinement in the U.S. 

The survey starts with a statement from the Association of State Correctional Administrators, or ASCA. In the statement, ASCA calls the isolation of prisoners a "grave problem" in the United States, and pledges to change solitary confinement policy in their prisons.

To that end, ASCA requested that the Arthur Liman Public Interest develop a database of prisoner isolation policies and practices at the state and federal level, and get a count of prisoners who are held in isolation.

The result was the "Time-in-Cell" survey, which found that 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were being held in solitary confinement in the U.S. as of the fall of 2014.

"While it's widespread, it's a terrible imposition on human beings, and it's terrible for the social order that we do it, and there's a shared commitment to changing it," said Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and one of the authors of the report. "Isolation isn't good for anyone -- not the communities from which people come, not the prison management inside, and surely and painfully not for the individual subjected to it."

Resnik said solitary confinement used to be reserved for the worst of the worst prisoners, but the federal "supermax" prisons of the 1980s made isolation a common practice. Now, she said, prison officials, politicians, and the public are starting to think differently about solitary.

"Everyone is coming to appreciate that this is expensive, morally bad, and dysfunctional in terms of rebuilding communities, whether people are going to be in prison for a long time or not," said Resnik.

Resnik admitted that change in isolation policy is happening so fast that the data she collected nearly a year ago may be outdated. She pointed to California's decision earlier this week to put strict limits on the use of solitary confinement in prisons.