Figures Exceed Previous Counts Because They Include All People
in Solitary in Prisons and Jails for 22 or More Hours a Day, and
Are Based on the Most Reliable Available Sources
WASHINGTON, D.C., May 23, 2023 – The watchdog group Solitary Watch and the advocacy coalition Unlock the Box today released a groundbreaking joint report showing that at least 122,840 people are locked daily in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails for 22 or more hours a day.
Calculating Torture (PDF LINK) is the first report to combine the use of solitary in local and federal jails in addition to state and federal prisons. It is based on analysis of data recently released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) as well as by state prison systems that did not report to BJS, and data from a survey of local jails conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice.
In light of the growing awareness that solitary confinement causes severe damage, increases the risk of death, and worsens safety for everyone, jurisdictions across the country have been introducing legislation to ban or restrict the practice. Among the significant trends found in the Banning Torture report include initiatives to: (1) end solitary confinement for young people; (2) end solitary confinement for subgroups including people who are pregnant, living with physical and mental disabilities, and those with medical conditions; (3) prohibit solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days in accordance with the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules; (4) create independent oversight mechanisms to promote effective policy implementation; and (5) fully end solitary confinement for all people.
These report numbers come closer than have any previously published figures in accounting for the total number of people in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Previous counts have largely focused on prisons, failing to include jails. In some cases, earlier data also omitted some states, and/or counted only those individuals held in solitary confinement for more than two weeks. For these reasons, previous reports have offered an incomplete picture of how extensively the discredited practice is used and the number of people it affects.
“The widespread use of solitary confinement in our prisons and jails is a humanitarian crisis. As the United Nations has confirmed, it’s torture taking place on U.S. soil. Yet until now, we haven’t even had a comprehensive count of how many people are in solitary,” said Jean Casella, Director of Solitary Watch.
“This kind of full and accurate information is critical to creating accountability and bringing about change,” Casella said. “It should also shock the conscience of all Americans concerned about criminal justice and human rights.”
Calculating Torture shows that on a given day in 2019, 80,758 people were in some form of solitary confinement (also known as “restrictive housing”) in federal and state prisons, making up 6.28 percent of the total prison population.
At the same time, based on an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, an estimated 5.64 percent of individuals in local and federal jails were in solitary confinement. In 2019, this comprised 42,072 people.
While the total figure of 122,840—constituting 6.08 percent of the total prison and jail population—far exceeds previous numbers, the report authors caution that it still undoubtedly undercounts the number of individuals who experience solitary confinement.
To begin with, it is based on self-reported data from correctional departments. It reflects only those held in solitary for 22 hours a day or more and omits shorter numbers of hours in solitary, units that amount to solitary by another name, and informal or transient forms of solitary such as lockdowns or quarantines. It also does not include individuals held in isolation in immigrant or juvenile facilities. In addition, the number represents a snapshot of the number of people in solitary at a given time, while many times that number are locked in solitary during the course of a year.
“Solitary confinement causes devastating harm and death, and worsens safety for everyone,” said Jessica Sandoval, Director of Unlock the Box, referring to a growing body of evidence showing that solitary confinement causes lasting psychological, neurological, and physical damage, dramatically increases suicide rates, and fails to reduce prison violence. “Locking over 122,000 people in solitary is a stain on our nation.”
The authors of Calculating Torture note that the 2019 numbers used in the report (the most recent that are available from the BJS) do not account for a spike in solitary confinement use in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and may not account for some incremental reductions in the overall use of solitary confinement due to implementation of some new legislative and policy changes. Advocates believe the recent changes would likely reduce the total by a few thousand.
“Thanks to campaigns led by people directly impacted by solitary, there is growing momentum and widespread public support for policies to limit or end solitary confinement and utilize proven alternatives,” said Sandoval. “But our work has just begun, and this report should add further urgency to that struggle. Now is the time for political leaders at the local, state, and federal levels—from New York to Georgia to Nevada to California to the White House and Congress—to act to stop this state-sanctioned torture.”
Read the full report: Calculating Torture Report
[ COMPLETE URL FOR PDF = https://unlocktheboxcampaign.org/calculating-torture-download]
For more information or to arrange an interview, contact:
Jean Casella, Solitary Watch, email@example.com, 917-974-0529
Jessica Sandoval, Unlock the Box, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-251-6572
About the report authors:
Solitary Watch is a nonprofit watchdog organization that works to uncover the truth about solitary confinement and other harsh prison conditions in the United States with high-quality investigative journalism, accurate information, and authentic storytelling from both sides of prison walls. Solitary Watch’s mission is to generate public debate and inform policy change on an underreported humanitarian crisis by promoting awareness, creating accountability, and shifting narratives.
Unlock the Box is a coalition of organizations and movement leaders who partner with state and local campaigns across the United States with the common goal of ending the use of solitary confinement for all people. Unlock the Box pursues this goal by
working simultaneously on national, state, and local levels with solitary survivors, family
members, advocates, community and faith groups, legislators, healthcare and corrections experts, and others dedicated to ending state-sponsored torture.
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