In July 2010, Leighton Johnson wrote a letter to advocacy groups, calling attention to the horrors he had witnessed in solitary confinement in a supermax prison in Connecticut.
“There are so many things that are going on in this building that are unjust, inhumane and basic violations of our rights. But we have no voice,” Johnson wrote. “I’m hoping this will open some eyes and cause some action to be taken . . . . We are human beings and should be treated as such, despite our status as prisoners.”
Johnson, who recently recited the letter in a phone interview from New Haven, is no longer imprisoned. But his plea—asking to be treated as a human being—still resonates in a growing debate about reforming a practice widely regarded around the world as torture.
The power of solitary confinement lies in its ability to exert extraordinary violence without a single touch—in fact, that’s the point. Denied meaningful human interaction and fresh air in a barren cell typically just large enough to turn around in, for nearly twenty-four hours a day, for weeks, months, and even years, people experience agony through isolation.
Johnson, who spent several years of his decade-long sentence in solitary, said prison staff provoked people to stir up conflict and make them miserable and angry as possible, and ignored requests for medical or mental health treatment or legal documents. He described the putrid air, “filthy” medical clinic, and shower smeared with urine, feces, and semen.
Johnson, reflecting on the several years he spent cycling in and out of solitary, frames his appeal around universal rights, regardless of a person’s sentence.
But in the years since Johnson wrote his letter, growing public outrage over the practice spurred many states, including New Jersey, Washington, and even solid red states like Texas, Nebraska, and Arkansas, to pass reforms to curb the use of solitary confinement, often focused on restricting the use of solitary for “vulnerable” groups—usually more sympathetic populations, such as juveniles.
Still, the practice remains entrenched in the nation’s carceral infrastructure. While there are no firm statistics on the use of solitary nationwide, one study estimated that, in 2012, there were 89,199 people being held in solitary, about 69,000 in state and federal prisons and rest in local jails.
“We think of solitary confinement as the handmaiden of over-incarceration,” says Amy Fettig, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. While the practice represents the most extreme form of imprisonment, she adds, “It is a symptom of an entire set of institutions that are deeply, deeply broken.”
Inmates subjected to solitary, most of whom will eventually be released, suffer extraordinary death and suicide rates and chronic physical and mental health problems after leaving prison, and often end up concentrated in communities starved of social services.
A recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that in the two weeks following release from the North Carolina state prison system, people who have spent any time in solitary confinement or “restrictive housing” were significantly more likely than the general prison population to die by opioid overdose. In the year after release, homicide or suicide mortality rates overall were higher in the solitary confinement population. There was also a high rate of recidivism— returning people to the environment that traumatized them in the first place.
Then there are those who never get out, who take their lives while in solitary.
“I’ve been in situations where people have actually killed themselves right next door to me,” says Johnson, recalling a man who managed to hang himself while officers were not looking. Now thirty-five, he is working with Stop Solitary: Connecticut. In mid-December, the group called on the state to end its use of solitary confinement.
Johnson, reflecting on the several years he spent cycling in and out of solitary, frames his appeal around universal rights, regardless of a person’s sentence: “I committed a crime, and I deserved prison time. But that doesn’t mean that while I’m doing my prison time that I should be treated as less than a human in inhumane conditions.”
Historically, the widespread use of solitary coincides with the expansion of torture tactics in the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, solitary typically takes the form of “administrative segregation”—separation from the general population due to a perceived risk of violence, escape or some other safety concern. However, it is often used as a disciplinary response to an infraction, which might simply involve disobeying an officer’s orders.
According to the Vera Institute’s analysis of solitary confinement in several states, most of the inmates in solitary were there for disciplinary segregation. People of color and those with mental illnesses were disproportionately represented.
Cesar Villa was sentenced to solitary confinement at the notorious Pelican Bay prison in California based on a charge that he was affiliated with a gang. In 2013, his twelfth year in the prison’s Security Housing Unit, he reflected on what the experience had done to him: “My psyche had changed—I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.”
Inmates subjected to solitary, most of whom will eventually be released, suffer extraordinary death and suicide rates and chronic physical and mental health problems after leaving prison.
“Other than the death penalty, long-term solitary confinement is the worst thing that can legally be done to a person in this country,” says Jean Casella, co-founder of the advocacy group Solitary Watch, in an interview with The Progressive. Such prolonged, frequent, punitive detainments in solitary contravene the so-called “Mandela Rules”—internationally recognized human rights standards that require the minimal use of the practice, and never against people with serious mental illness, nor as a form of “collective punishment.”
Solitary Watch reported that in 2011 “nearly all of the 1,100 men in the [segregation unit] at Pelican Bay State Prison had been in solitary for five years or more,” some for as many as twenty years. The dire conditions prompted a major lawsuit led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, along with widespread hunger strikes and protests in 2013, which eventually paved the way for significant restrictions on the use of solitary. A settlement with the state that effectively prompted many releases from solitary, as well as an agreement to overhaul restrictive housing policies.
Fettig says confronting the harms of solitary means facing some of the most brutal aspects of prison culture and “really reimagining the way we do corrections and the way we do law enforcement in this country.” Enhancing mental-health treatment programs, providing a socially supportive setting for all incarcerated individuals, and strengthening programs for people preparing for reentry into the community, would help tamp down the stressors that current cause violent or disruptive behavior.
And, in the long run, advocates want to reduce overall incarceration by fundamentally changing the legal and law enforcement systems to focus less on punishment and more on therapeutic, rehabilitative intervention, and stable housing and jobs.
In the meantime, the use of solitary is being gradually reduced, state by state.
New Jersey recently passed a law that restricts the use of “isolated confinement” to no more than twenty days, and only for people between the ages of twenty-one and sixty-five. It also bans its use for inmates who are pregnant, postpartum, LGBTQ, or deemed to have a serious medical or psychological condition. The law, which applies to both prisons and jails, also directs the prison system to provide recreational and rehabilitative interventions during the short time when people in solitary are allowed out of their cells.
In 2019, Nebraska also passed a similar law to restrict the use of solitary for vulnerable populations, including minors in adult prisons. Now activists are campaigning to end solitary in juvenile detention, where youth of color are heavily overrepresented. “Young Nebraskans in the juvenile justice system need education, treatment, and rehabilitation,” says Scout Richters, legal and policy counsel for ACLU Nebraska, “and we know that isolating children, whose brains are still developing, undermines these goals.”
Cultural change among the prison workforce is a more complex challenge. California and Colorado have hired more mental-health staff and trained jail officers to treat inmates more humanely and to deescalate potential conflicts in order to minimize solitary confinement. But there has been resistance from corrections officer unions, which insist solitary is a necessary safeguard for staff. Following a ban on solitary for people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one in local jails, New York City’s Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association petitioned the city’s Board of Collective Bargaining to allow for the use of solitary, citing a recent 25 percent spike in violence between jail inmates (even though research shows no link between violence rising and decreased use of solitary).
“Other than the death penalty, long-term solitary confinement is the worst thing that can legally be done to a person in this country.”
Despite some backlash, Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch, which helped lead the campaign for the New Jersey legislation, says public opposition to solitary confinement is rising steadily, with some aiming to rid society of prisons altogether. She acknowledges the limitations of the legislation—it restricts the use of solitary but does not fully end the practice or substantially improve conditions within restricted housing. But she notes that the more radical activists driving the campaign see “abolishing the use of solitary confinement as a first step to abolishing the use of prisons as we know them.”
The conversation in Congress is now shifting as well. After the passage of a major sentencing reform bill in 2018 and years of steady reductions in the national prison population, two federal bills have been introduced to overhaul standards for solitary confinement. The more expansive proposal, which would deal with state as well as federal prisons, declares that “a prisoner may be placed in solitary confinement only under extreme emergency circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible, subject to independent review.”
But nationwide reform seems unlikely for now, under a Republican administration and a conservative Supreme Court.
Johnson, for his part, still suffers from the trauma of his time in solitary. Part of his recovery is taking part in the movement to defeat the practice.
“I made promises to people when I was inside that I wasn’t going to stop fighting,” he says. He recalls that, after sending his letter, when he realized that advocates on the outside were campaigning to help him, “I said, you know, I’m going to do the same thing once I get home for people who are still in there . . . . You know how many people inside don’t know that we out here doing this fight right now?”