Mandela Fist


Gain a deeper understanding on how, when, and why solitary confinement is used in the United States by taking a deeper look at the research surrounding the practice and its history.

Learn about the devastating impacts of solitary directly from people with lived experience of solitary.

We invite you to read reports from our campaign partners, advocacy organizations, field experts, and medical and academic journals; get up-to-date statistics on the use of solitary in your state;, and download our offered toolkits to help you stay informed and spread the word about our mission.

A good place to start is Solitary Watch’s “FAQ”. Feel free to download it below and use it in your local community meetings and solitary confinement advocacy work.

solitary: what you should know

Most frequent questions and answers

Solitary confinement generally involves the placement of a person, alone or with a cellmate, in a locked room or cell for as long as 22 hours or more per day without meaningful access to human contact, often for almost any reason, with or without the person’s consent, and can occur in pretrial or post-conviction detention. Access to exercise, programming, and family visitation are either greatly curtailed or completely denied. People often receive food through a slot in the door and have “recreation” alone in an empty cage.[10]

The result of solitary confinement is severe human, social, and sensory deprivation. In turn, solitary confinement inflicts immense suffering and causes people to deteriorate mentally, physically, and socially. It causes psychosis, anxiety, depression, and heart disease, and too often leads to self-mutilation and death by suicide and other causes.

According to multiple studies and reports, putting people in isolation does not lead to safer prisons or safer communities. Research indicates that isolation causes more violence inside correctional facilities, a marked increase in mental illness, and increased harm to the communities survivors are placed in following incarceration.[11]

30% of youth held in juvenile facilities report being held in solitary confinement for some period of time. In adult prisons and jails, young people are disproportionately locked in solitary. Because their brains are still developing the psychological effects are great and often irreversible. In addition, youth in solitary are kept from educational opportunities and the ability to develop social skills. According to experts, “young people are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement…and the traumatic experience has a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.” [12]

The eighth amendment to the United States Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishment” can not be administered to people in correctional facilities. According to international law, solitary confinement is torture and a violation of human rights.
International experts have called for the abolishment of solitary confinement because of its harmful effects on mental and physical health of people who are incarcerated. Yet, the practice remains widespread in the US. [13]

Like mass incarceration itself, research shows that solitary confinement is disproportionately inflicted on Black people, Latinx people, Native people, and other people of color.  People of color are far more likely to be isolated than their white counterparts. In one California study, 86% of people in isolation were Latinx and in New York State 82% of people in solitary are Black or Latinx. [14]



The research on solitary confinement runs almost as deep as the misinformation and myths surrounding the practice.

These myths persist in part because of a lack of transparency, which keeps the public and the press from witnessing what happens behind the closed doors of prisons and jails.

MYTH #1:

Solitary is primarily used for minor infractions like not following an order, or even having too many postage stamps or extra food.

MYTH #2:

There is considerable evidence that thousands of youth are being subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes for months or years.

MYTH #3:

People in solitary are deprived of meaningful human interaction and programs, causing additional drastic physical and psychological harm.

MYTH #4:

Solitary confinement costs 2-3 times what it costs to hold people in general population. Banning the practice will also save money by reducing violence, medical expenses, and re-incarceration.

MYTH #5:

The conditions in isolation are far different than in the facilities’ general population. The absence of meaningful human interaction and programming can cause drastic physical and psychological harm.

MYTH #6:

There are many safe and proven alternatives that could reduce violence, increase public safety, and cut incarceration costs.

“It is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

-Juan Mendez, United Nations


How does the United States compare to other countries it’s use of solitary confinement? Not so good.


Compared to the founding NATO countries, we not only incarcerate far more people, but our use of solitary confinement is far more widespread. Gain a deeper understanding on how, when, and why solitary confinement is used in the United States by taking a deeper look at the research surrounding the practice and its history. 


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Watch Frontline’s video for a brief history on what changed in the 1970s and how that led the United States to become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of this state-inflicted torture. 


Originally introduced in the United States in the late 1700s, solitary confinement was found early on to cause devastating harm and even death. By the late nineteenth century and through most of the twentieth century, long-term solitary was rarely used and only in the most exceptional circumstances. 

In the late twentieth century, with the rise of the racially-driven mass incarceration, the increasingly punitive approach of the incarceration system, and the move away from rehabilitation, solitary confinement expanded dramatically across the United States.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of people in solitary and the number of solitary confinement units increased exponentially, as solitary became a routine practice in prisons, jails, and detention centers.


Quakers and others who viewed themselves as reformers introduced solitary confinement in an attempt to create more humane alternatives to cruel punishments such as flogging, the pillory and stocks, and overcrowded jails. The Walnut Street Jail introduced a solitary confinement cellblock in 1790, and this approach spread to Auburn Prison in 1821 and Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, and beyond.
The dark side of the experiment began to reveal itself. People from other countries visiting U.S. prisons, from Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to Charles Dickens, issued scathing critiques of the use of solitary confinement, observing how the practice caused immense suffering, decompensation, and deterioration,
The Supreme Court of the United States condemned the use of solitary confinement in an 1890 decision. From the late 18th century through much of the 19th century, the practice of long-term solitary confinement was rarely utilized in the US.
With the rise of racially driven mass incarceration and the deinstitutionalization of people with mental health needs without community-based care,people were incarcerated at much higher rates for much longer periods of time in less rehabilitative and more punitive environments, especially Black people, people of color, and people with mental health needs.
Members of the Aryan Brotherhood murdered two guards at Marion prison in two separate incidents. Prison officials introduced a prison-wide lockdown, which never ended, giving rise to a supermax prison.
The United States adopts solitary confinement as a widespread and pervasive practice, building unprecedented numbers of entire supermax prisons dedicated to solitary confinement as well as solitary units in prisons, jails, and detention centers.
A working group of 24 international experts adopted the Istanbul Expert Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement, calling on all countries to limit the use of solitary confinement to very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort.
In 2009, Solitary Watch was launched to investigate and report on the widespread use of solitary across the country. In 2011, the ACLU launched its national Stop Solitary Campaign. These national efforts followed years and decades of advocates and activists in various parts of the country working to challenge the use of solitary confinement.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez published a report condemning the use of solitary confinement and officially defining prolonged solitary confinement, solitary for punishment, solitary in pre-trial detention, and solitary for particular groups as torture. The Special Rapporteur called for the prohibition of all of these forms of solitary worldwide.
​​After years of advocacy and legislative campaigns against the extreme solitary confinement housing practices at the notorious supermax facility, Tamms Correctional Center, the Illinois Governor closed the facility.
A nationally publicized hunger strike by 30,000 people incarcerated in California state prisons about solitary confinement galvanized the anti-solitary movement across the country. In 2015, a lawsuit settlement immediately released people who spent more than 10 years in solitary into general population, prohibited solitary based solely on “gang affiliation”, limited time spent in solitary, and provided more out-of-cell time.
Pope Francis denounced the use of solitary confinement as torture and urged all people to be treated with human dignity.
The entire United Nations General Assembly adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, including prohibiting solitary confinement beyond 15 days and banning solitary confinement for children, pregnant people and new mothers, individuals with mental illness and physical disabilities, and other vulnerable populations.
Supreme Court Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor all wrote critiques of solitary confinement in concurring and dissenting opinions. For example, Kennedy stated “research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.” Sotomayor described solitary as “near-total isolation from the living world ... in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”
President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to visit a prison, criticized the devastating impacts of solitary and took steps to ban solitary for youth in federal prisons and reduce the use of solitary generally in federal prisons.
Survivor-led campaigns push states and localities. In 2018, Colorado declared it ended solitary beyond 15 days in state prisons. In 2019, New Jersey passed a law dramatically restricting prolonged solitary. In 2021, New York State passed a law ending solitary beyond 15 days and providing alternatives with at least 7 hours of out-of-cell congregate programming and activities.
The U.S. leads the world in the use of solitary, but public opinion is swaying and governments are acting. Survivors of solitary and family members are leading campaigns across the country to end or restrict the practice. With the support of Unlock The Box, they are paving the way for the US to end solitary confinement.
Experiments Begin
Solitary Critiqued
Solitary Condemned
Mass Incarceration
Marion Lockdown
Dramatic Expansion of Torture
International Condemnation
Reporting and Advocacy
UN Report
Closing of Illinois Supermax
Hunger Strikes at Pelican Bay State Prison
Pope Denounces Solitary
Mandela Rules
Supreme Court Justices Condemn Solitary
U.S. President Condemns Solitary
Restricting Solitary
The Fight Continues



Below are the research sources we’ve used to inform our campaign and website.  It’s not just a bunch of citations; it’s a great reading list and place to get started in learning about solitary confinement.  Feel free to click on the links to individual sources, download as a reading list, or download a .zip file with all of the reports and articles we are legally able to share.  

A better grasp

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Check out these videos to learn more about the ins and outs of solitary confinement

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