An End to Solitary Confinement in the United States

Jackson Boyle ’25

Jackson Boyle ’25

In the 1990s, Five Mualimm-ak was a successful real estate investor, a passionate community leader, and a loving father of a 5-year-old boy. In 2000, he was wrongfully arrested for possession of illegal weapons and spent twelveyears in prison until the Innocence Project exonerated him. During his imprisonment, Mualimm-ak spent five years in solitary confinement. He was not put in solitary for dangerous behavior, but rather for minor infractions that include having too many postage stamps in his cell and not eating his apple. While in confinement, Mualimm-ak would spend 23 hours a day in his 6×9 foot cell with no social interactions. Another former inmate, who spent over seven years in isolation, described the smell as a combination of “defecation, unwashed armpits … [mixed] with the pepper spray officers use to extract prisoners from their cells”. After being released, Five Mualimm-ak was dropped off in Times Square by a bus filled with inmates who had also been in solitary confinement. Of the 15 people who were on the bus, 5 committed suicide within a year.

Five Mualimm-ak is far from alone in having to live through this tortuous experience. Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 80,000 people in solitary on any given day: approximately 4.5% of the total prison population in the United States. About 450,000 people were held in solitary over the last twelve months and many advocacy groups argue that these numbers are much higher in reality. This practice is unacceptable; the conditions in solitary confinement are inhumane and the effects are long lasting. In fact, living in such isolation has shown to lead to mental health issues. Humans are social creatures and this forced deprivation of human interaction can lead to very serious problems. Many of those who spend time in solitary confinement report increased anxiety, depression, anger, panic attacks, violent tendencies, and hallucinations. 50% of suicides in prisons occur within solitary confinement. Studies have also shown an increase in the risk of premature death, even after release. Given the effects of confinement on prisoners’ mental and physical health, this practice proves to be incredibly barbaric. 

With this knowledge, the United Nations has stated that solitary confinement may only be imposed under exceptional circumstances. The U.N states that enforcing isolation for over fifteen consecutive days is a form of torture. Both Colorado and New York State have banned the use of this practice only if it exceeds fifteen days. However, in 2019, according to a report from Yale Law School, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 prisoners in the United States were held in solitary for at least fifteen days. It is evident that this policy needs to be extended to the federal level to provide comprehensive reform. At the very minimum, no person, no matter their sentence, should be subjected to torturous conditions. As a matter of fact, in 1890, the United States discontinued the practice of solitary confinement after the Supreme Court acknowledged its unproductive nature. It was not until the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1980s that the United States brought back the practice. In acknowledging the previous removal of confinement, it proves that there are means for doing so again. 

While many agree that these conditions are inhumane, supporters of solitary confinement justify the act as effective. Advocates for this practice argue that the possibility of such torture deters the potential of crime within the prison and reduces recidivism among inmates. While there are mixed conclusions surrounding the impact of confinement on crime in prisons, studies have shown that, in fact, it does increase the chance of recidivism. However, there are alternatives to this solitary which prove to be much more effective. In Norway, prisoners are provided therapy and life counseling. Even here in the United States, both North Dakota and Washington State have implemented programs that reward good behavior rather than punish bad actions in prison. Although there are concerns about the costs surrounding such programs, it is important to recognize the expenses of solitary confinement. It costs three times as much to keep someone in isolation for a year then in the general setting of the prison. Not to mention the potential long-run savings that come with a reduction in recidivism. 

Our country’s extensive use of solitary confinement is both cruel and unproductive. Locking people up in a cage for 23 hours a day is not the solution- it just makes the problem worse. We need to provide the tools necessary to allow prisoners a second chance at life and to do so, the United States must end the practice of solitary confinement. Policy change that prioritizes the mental health of prisoners and encourages good behavior is crucial. By banning solitary confinement, the United States can take an important step in creating a more civilized and effective justice system.