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New report reveals over 122K are held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails

The data highlights the widespread practice of isolating inmates as the federal government and some cities and states reconsider how to limit its use.
Photo Illustration: A view through a fisheye lens of an empty solitary confinement prison cell
Thomas Imo / Photothek via Getty Images

Poor and incomplete data collection makes it difficult to know the full scope of people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. But a first-of-its-kind analysis is aiming to become a benchmark for tracking the practice — part of a larger effort as cities, states and the federal government weigh how to limit its use.

About 122,840 people in federal and state adult prisons and federal and local jails were placed in restrictive housing — informally known as solitary confinement — for 22 hours or more on a given day in mid-2019, according to a new report released Tuesday based on the most recently available government data.

That amounts to about 6% of the total U.S. prison and jail population at the time.

The report — prepared by Solitary Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group, and Unlock the Box, an advocacy campaign — relies on self-reported figures from states and the federal government's Bureau of Justice Statistics as well as a survey sent to all U.S. jails from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group.

Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, whose home state of Missouri counted nearly 12% of its total prison population in restrictive housing on a single day, said the report's findings underscore a "catastrophe."

"Inflicting solitary on one person is a moral blight on this nation," she said. "Inflicting it on hundreds of thousands of people — disproportionately Black, brown and Indigenous people — is a disaster. We as public officials must act now to stop this widespread infliction of torture."

The overall figure amounts to more than 1 in 20 incarcerated people in solitary confinement in the United States, said Solitary Watch Director Jean Casella, adding that the report is still an incomplete picture because not all states provide their restrictive housing numbers to the federal government and local jails are not generally compelled to log incidents. The report also does not include uses of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers or youth facilities, where data is also limited.

"Until a better system is developed and is mandated, what we're going to have is this snapshot," Casella said. "And since there's no penalty for not reporting to the [Bureau of Justice Statistics], we're fortunate we have this many states even doing it at all."

According to the report, only one state — West Virginia — did not provide numbers to the bureau or make them publicly available. The West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to a request for comment.

The state with the highest share of its prison population in solitary confinement was Nevada, with almost 26%, according to the report.

The Nevada Department of Corrections said in 2019 that it was looking at alternatives to segregating and isolating inmates after acknowledging a Vera Institute report that found people would spend additional days or weeks being held as they waited for a general population bed to open and inmates' mental health needs were not being adequately addressed.

The department did not immediately return requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Delaware was the only state in the report to say there were zero instances of solitary confinement in its prisons.

A state Department of Correction spokesman credited this to Delaware’s overhaul of its restrictive housing policy in 2019, and said the opening of a specialized unit at the state's largest prison is treating mentally ill inmates who would have normally been held in maximum security housing.

While prolonged solitary confinement is generally defined as placing someone in a cell for at least 22 hours per day for 15 consecutive days or more, Delaware updated its disciplinary policy so that inmates aren't kept in solitary for more than 15 days and they must get 10 hours per week of recreation time.

Prison staff and correctional officer organizations have countered that isolating inmates can be a necessary tool in preventing serious harm to the inmates or others. But studies have shown it also heightens the risk of self-harm and suicide and may not be effective in combating recidivism.

The latest report differs from previous studies by not solely focusing on inmates who have been held 15 days or more in solitary confinement, but rather spent any amount of days in a cell for 22 hours or more.

Casella said she hopes the report can help to spur corrections officials to only isolate inmates in very limited situations, such as de-escalating violence, and only for brief periods, not days on end.

Solitary confinement surges

Efforts are ongoing in some places.

State lawmakers in Nevada are considering a bill that would address the use of solitary confinement so that it "may only be used as a last resort, in the least restrictive manner and for the shortest period of time safely possible."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is currently tasked with creating new guidelines for segregated confinement after Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed a bill last year to indefinitely end solitary confinement because of concerns over safety. The bill was reintroduced this session, and if passed, would define solitary confinement as segregating someone longer than 17 hours a day and without contact from others besides prison staff.

In New York City, a push to ban solitary confinement in jails has gained resistance from correction officials despite the City Council having a veto-proof supermajority. Meanwhile, the city agreed last month to settle a lawsuit for $53 million filed by pretrial detainees who alleged they were being held in jail conditions akin to solitary confinement.

"It is a disgrace that our government institutions lock more than 120,000 people in solitary confinement each day," said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who helped to introduce the solitary confinement ban legislation. "Behind that number are real people suffering in solitude, many in silence — so we have to speak out."

On the federal level, President Joe Biden ran on a pledge to largely end solitary confinement and also issued an executive order a year ago aiming to overhaul the practice, but an NBC News analysis found its use was only increasing in the subsequent months.

A Justice Department report in February said a task force of senior federal prison officials was examining the use of restrictive housing and "actively investigating" why the number of prisoners being held in restrictive housing has surged in recent years.

The federal Bureau of Prisons is "taking the necessary short and long-term steps to thoughtfully address this issue, and we are confident in [BOP Director Colette Peters'] ability to effectively meet the goals of the President's Executive Order," a Justice Department spokesman said.

At the very least, Casella said, the federal government can improve its overall data collection process.

"Prisons and jails are maybe the most change-resistant government institutions we have in this country," she said, "so bringing any kind of change will be a long, arduous process."