Solitary Confinement

When laboratory researchers wanted to study the effects of solitary confinement, they had to obtain special permission because mimicking the isolation of solitary confinement was considered so cruel to the mice. 

From the social framework surrounding solitary confinement, to its neurological impacts, the Mandela Rules, why solitary confinement in the U.S. is so unregulated, and more, this episode offers an important and unshakeable look in to the human rights implications of solitary confinement’s use. 

Discussion features Clara Long of Human Rights Watch, Jean Casella  of Solitary Watch, and was moderated by Promise Fellow, Seadimo Tlale.  


Clara Long: In the sense that it’s a practice, but far from contributing to any kind of rehabilitation is concretely harming people leading to death, leading to illness, leading to massive harms; solitary confinement as it’s used in the US should make us question what the prison system and what the immigration detention system is really for.

Seadimo Tlale: Hello, and welcome to yet another episode of the Promise Institute podcast. Today, we will be discussing the very critical issue that is solitary confinement in the United States. My name is Seadimo. I am a summer intern at the Promise Institute’s Human Rights Litigation Clinic. By profession, I’m a public interest lawyer from South Africa currently working towards my LLM in the Critical Race Studies at UCLA. I will be your host on today’s episode. 

Joining me in this conversation are Clara Long from Human Rights Watch and Jean Casella from Solitary Watch. Clara Long is an Associate Director with the US program at Human Rights Watch. Her reports and advocacy have covered issues such as deaths in immigration detention linked to poor medical care, mistreatment, and dismissal of asylum seekers at the U.S. border, border policing abuses, the detention of children and families, and the harmful deportation of deeply- rooted long-term U.S. residents. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch she was a teaching fellow with the Stanford law school, international human rights and conflict resolution clinic. She is the co-producer of an award winning documentary,

Border Stories, about perspectives on immigration enforcements from both sides of the US Mexican border. Clara graduated with honors from Harvard law school and holds masters degrees from London schools of economics in environment and development, and from Stanford’s graduate program in journalism.

Jean Casella is co-director of Solitary Watch, a web based watchdog project that investigates and documents the use of solitary confinement in the US prisons and jails. Since its founding in 2009, Solitary Watch has increased public awareness and catalyzed change on a once invisible domestic human rights issue.

Early in her career, Jean managed several mission-driven book and magazine publishers. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, The Guardian, and many other outlets. And she is co-director of three anthologies, including Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Sonfinement. For her reporting on prisons, 

she has received a service just as media fellowship and an Alicia Patterson fellowship. Very good afternoon to both of you. And thank you so much for availing yourselves for this conversation. 

Jean Casella: Thank you, Seadimo. It’s good to be here. 

Clara Long: Thank you.

Seadimo Tlale: So solitary confinement goes by many names in the United States. If you’re familiar with mainstream media, SHU is one of the terms that have been popularized, which is an acronym for special housing units. Other names include administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, restrictive housing, and even protective custody.

In fact, there are humans who have voluntarily sign up for protective custody thinking this means they will get protection, and not actually knowing that this means solitary confinement. So Clara, I’d like to start with you. Perhaps if you could please define what exactly solitary confinement is, what are its conditions, how it’s used and who is subject to it, and for what reward.

Clara Long: Yeah. I mean, also another word that we sometimes use when we write about it is just isolation because there are lots of different ways in which people who are in custody in the United States and around the world are placed in what are very isolating environments.

So imagine you’re being held in a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, you have no windows, your only human contact might be a guard that drops off food a couple of times a day. You may have some time outside of your cell, but even then alone in a yard where you’re lucky if you can see the sky. And the reasons why people get 

placed into solitary confinement is, just speaking from the perspective of the US, are structural. There’s huge numbers of prisons who are built with solitary confinement as sort of the plan, the supermax prisons. Also for disciplinary reasons often in an arbitrary and untransparent system of discipline that can get people thrown into solitary confinement for extended periods of time.

And then finally, as a system that disproportionately impacts people with psychosocial disabilities who not only may end up being placed in solitary confinement because of the disabilities, but suffer even worse impacts while in that environment. 

Seadimo Tlale: I mean, just listening to that I feel like that would be such a terrible place to be. 

Jean Casella: It seems like every month there’s a new study that comes out with more and more evidence of the range of harms that are caused by solitary.

We’ve known for some time now that it causes severe psychological damage. There is a group of symptoms that has enough in common that it’s come to be known as shoe syndrome. And that includes everything from anxiety and depression to visual and auditory hallucinations to full-blown psychosis and suicidal ideation.

One thing that certainly should be mentioned is that the proportion of prison and jail suicides that take place in solitary confinement, it’s vastly disproportionate to the percentage of the population. Depending on the state and the study, anywhere from 40 to 70% of prison suicides take place

within the approximately four to 5% of incarcerated individuals who are being held in solitary. So that gives you an idea of the anguish and the psychological damage that’s caused by that kind of extreme and often prolonged isolation being visited on human beings who are a social species.

And more recently there’s evidence that there’s actually neurological damage caused by solitary. Studies that have been done on laboratory mice. And it’s worth mentioning that in order to hold the mice in isolating conditions similar to solitary confinement, even for a short time, required special permission for the people doing the experiments, because it’s considered cruel and there are no such restrictions on holding human beings in the same conditions in this country. But even short-term experiments show actual change in brain structures, shrinking certain parts of the brain, the slowing of transmissions between neurons in the brain.

So we’re talking some really profound effects. And by the way, the average solitary confinement cell in America is smaller than the average parking space. 

Seadimo Tlale: Wow, I, my jaw is just on the floor right now. I mean, I’ve known and I’ve understood how cruel this is. And just listening to you unpack some of those details, I’m extremely shocked.

On addressing solitary confinement, the United Nations standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, also known as the Mandela rules, have stated that solitary confinement is torture when used for 15 consecutive days or longer. Yet, as you both have mentioned, this is largely unobserved throughout the United States.

My most pressing question is why solitary confinement in the US is so unregulated. 

Jean Casella: You know, I think that the growth of solitary confinement tracks very closely with the trend toward mass incarceration, starting in the late seventies. And as more and more people were placed in prisons and jails as

any even lip service toward rehabilitation as a purpose of incarceration, was basically left behind and the United States embraced full on just a punishment paradigm. Within that, solitary confinement makes sense. I mean, when people misbehave in society, they’re placed,

they’re locked away in prison.When they present any kind of problematic behavior in prison, they’re locked away in solitary, which is a prison within a prison. And it came to be so widely accepted that when we began solitary watch, which was in 2009, not that long ago, there was really very, very little awareness.

There had been reports from Human Rights Watch, from a few other groups, documenting the extent of the use of solitary confinement. We didn’t, we didn’t even have like numbers then. And the first numbers that we were able to find were from the US justice department, bureau of justice statistics.

And we found a figure that said 81,000 people were in solitary, just in prisons, not even jails or immigration detention or juvenile detention. Just state and federal prisons. When I first saw that, I thought that it might be, it must be a typographical error. Like how, like, it must be 8,100. Like how could 81,000 people on the average day be held in these conditions and you know, this wasn’t the biggest domestic human rights story around.

I think, you know, that awareness has increased over time and at the same time, we’ve begun questioning mass incarceration, especially how deeply it’s rooted in racism. So it makes sense that we’re now questioning the use of solitary as well. 

Seadimo Tlale: Clara, is there anything you’d like to add to that? 

Clara Long: I think the work of solitary watch has been really key in raising the profile of this issue in the United State from a very, very hidden one to one that the end of the Obama administration began to take on more and more federal salients. But I think you’re also right to point out

how long the United States has desperately needed to reform the structures that give rise to this massive use of the practice. And, and I want to fly that you know, part of that is federal policy and the federal prison system, but part of it is the fact that reform efforts need to go state by state with states making changes

to the ways that people are fed into a system of social control and mass incarceration, and also the ways that they can absolutely limit this practice in accordance with the Mandela rules. We’ve recently seen some positive action in New York, for example, but , you know, this is a ground fight in many ways.

And I think that is part of the story of why we’re still in it.

Seadimo Tlale: Yeah. So, I mean, both Human Rights Watch and Solitary Watch are both involved in the anti solitary confinement work. And you’ve spoken a little bit to it, but I think maybe providing a longer opportunity to both of you to just unpack the nature of the work that you do.

So when you say you’ve raised awareness or brought it to light, what exactly is the work that you do? To what extent has it been successful and perhaps, maybe even highlight some of the ongoing campaigns at the moment or projects that you’re both working on in your respective organizations? I think Clara, you can go first.

Clara Long: My perspective is very much focused on the immigration system. I work with a larger team, and we have done a lot of work historically on the US prison system. But let me just say quickly a word about the immigration system, because we haven’t really inserted it yet into this conversation. 

Jean mentioned, you know, having this number 81,000 for the US prison system. US immigration system is apart from that and is a system of so-called civil detention, but that occurs in many cases in jails but also in private detention facilities that are of made for purpose by profit seeking companies.

And it’s currently holding about 30,000 people a day. In fact, the Biden administration has allowed it to nearly double in size since when it came into office in January. And, you know, in a series of reports that we’ve done over several years we’ve documented the harms of the use of isolation Sometimes, as part of a disciplinary system sometimes is interwoven with a system for handling those with psychosocial disabilities. And I can tell you a little bit about how we’ve seen that impact people in horrific ways. I’ve done several reports about the people who die in immigration detention, a large proportion of whom are dying by suicide.

Most of those who are dying by suicide or are doing so while being held in isolation and while not receiving adequate treatment and care for their psychosocial needs. And these are sort of just repeated, consistent accounts of people whose medical and psychosocial needs are ignored, whose health state declines while in isolation, and who ultimately experience sort of the worst outcomes of these abuses.

 Where immigration detention is concerned, I think somehow this is related, perhaps for the overall calls for reform of the criminal system. You know, we pointed out these harms, and we’ve called for a limitation on the use of solitary confinement, but there is a larger issue here which is that people do not need to be detained, and the best way to keep them safe from this kind of treatment

is to invest in other tension alternative system that supports people’s need to have information about their immigration cases, social workers, lawyers, and to live more safely in community with their family and friends. And so that’s been the major thrust of our advocacy with to this issue, even though of course at this in the same breath, we call for safer practices.

But I don’t think we can lose sight of this larger aim, which is let’s not put people at risk by putting them into these abusive systems. 

Jean Casella: I was actually really happy to see that Clara was going to be the other guest on this podcast because one of the issues with solitary confinement is it’s a way of disappearing people.

I mean, people are disappeared into the prison system, into the immigration detention system to begin with, and then they’re just buried deeper and deeper when they’re put in solitary confinement. And as invisible as people are in solitary and prisons and jails, I would say they’re even more invisible

when they’re put in solitary in the immigration detention system. You know, the access of advocates, of lawyers, of the media, you know, it’s even more difficult to access that world than it is to access the world of prisons and jails. We’ve always operated with the knowledge that the only way that we could get real information about what was going on inside these places and what life was like there would be to have the people who live there themselves become in effect kind of reporters for us.

And I think that again is even more difficult within the detention system because of the transients, because of the language barriers. So, you know, it’s really important that we acknowledge how much this is going on in that separate system as well. But, in prisons and jails there has been a growing movement.

I should say that the courts have, I mean, I’m the only one here is not a lawyer, but the courts have been very unhelpful in this way. For the most part, US federal courts have found that solitary confinement, even for prolonged periods, is not cruel and unusual punishment.

I don’t know how they could possibly come to that conclusion against this huge and growing body of evidence. But so far that has been the case. And of course with our current Supreme court, there is not much hope among advocates of getting decisive change coming from the courts.

So it is exactly as Carr described as state by state and even locale. I mean, we have 50, 51 state prison systems. We also have 3000 local jails. That could be a local jail run by a sheriff, that’s how low it goes. And then we have the federal system run by the attorney general and the president.

So we have to fight on.

Seadimo Tlale: We’ve thrown around the word eliminating and reform quite a lot in this conversation. And I don’t know if this is a fair question, but as an abolitionist, my biggest concern as it relates to any work relating to prisons is always whether their intention is to abolish or reform.

And I’ve heard recently of reformist abolition and anything in between and without getting stuck on the terminology, per se, I’d like to find out from both of you, maybe in personal and professional capacity weather the intention is to do away with solitary confinement completely, or whether they are justified circumstances in which solitary confinement can be justified.

Jean Casella: I would say no in the way that it’s practiced in the United States. I think we can look to some European business systems. I don’t want to overstate now how much, they have many, many problems of their own and their use of isolation has increased under COVID immensely.

But, at least, on paper, in a place like Germany, separating people from others is measured in hours, not in days or months or years or decades. And I just want to make clear, cause we haven’t really said this that the person who’s believed to have been in solitary for the longest period of time was Albert Woodfox in Louisiana.

And he was released after 44 years in solitary, and that is of course unusual, but 10 years is not that unusual. And we have people in now who have been in solitary for 30 years. And so short-term separation may be necessary. but that needs to only be very brief for the sake of safety and other solutions need to be found.

And I believe can be found for pretty much any reason that you would be isolating someone. And even isolation doesn’t have to be, at separation doesn’t have to be as isolating as it is in our prisons. I mean, it’s just, there’s an element of cruelty in the way that we practice solitary confinement that solitary confinement cells for the most part don’t have bars.

They have solid doors with a slot in them and food trays come through that slot. I know from speaking with many people who’ve experienced solitary that when a mental health worker will go around doing mental health checks, that’s happening through the food slot. I know someone who is diabetic and was in solitary confinement, and he received his insulin injections by extending his arm through his food slot to a nurse on the other side.

At that point he was in solitary for having too many pencils. You’re allowed to have one. He was an artist, he used two to do portraits of people’s families, from photographs and, you know, probably get paid with a little extra commissary food or whatever. And so he had a bunch of drawing pencils and it turned out you were only allowed to have like two pencils in that prison.

So the first two pencils are okay. You know, his other three pencils were weapons. And so he was placed in solitary confinement for having weapons. That is, so I want to just return briefly to the question of the tension between reform and abolition. I think there are certain, I don’t even want to call them reform,

I’m going to call them changes that ultimately serve an abolitionists agenda and goal. And eliminating solitary confinement is very much one of those because just as solitary rose with the growth of mass incarceration, we cannot maintain the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, the kind of numbers and the kind of system that we have right now without the use of solitary confinement.

And so I think solitary confinement and decarceration go hand in hand. You can’t control that many people in that abusive and environment without being able to like lock them away in little boxes. 

Seadimo Tlale: Clara, is there anything you’d like to add to that? 

Clara Long: Yeah, well, you know, Human Rights Watch is committed to this, the lodestar of what human rights standards are.

And in this case the standards are limit solitary confinement to very exceptional cases and for as short a time as possible. And of course, as we’ve noted already, the idea that 15 days is a hard limit after which solitary confinement run serious risks of being considered cruel and inhuman or degrading or, or even torture.

But that said, I think one of the things that those examples that Jean has been sharing were really put on the table is that solitary confinement as it’s used in the US should make us question what the prison system and what the immigration detention system is really for

in the sense that it’s a practice, but far from contributing to any kind of rehabilitation is concretely harming people leading to death, leading to illness, leading to, you know, just massive harms. And Jean probably will be able to say much more about this, but the irony in all that, right, is that solitary confinement arose in the United States 

as a Quaker idea, back in the 1790s to reform prison systems, the idea that you could be sort of quiet and alone in a cell would help you connect with God. And that would contribute to rehabilitation. you know, at the time was considered an improvement from the torturous practices that were then used. And It’s pretty shocking, 

looking back at the historical record, how quickly it became totally clear that that wasn’t the case at all. At that time, famous observers, Charles Dickens, visited people in prison in the United States, it said, people who are being held in solitary confinement and noted the

severe impacts that the practice was having on their health and, and the lack of rehabilitative effect. So, when we think about what this says to us about abolition or reform, I think one of the things we have to take into account is understanding if we have a prison system and a detention system that is really based around the use of this torturous and cruel and inhuman and degrading practice, what kind of system is that?

And what’s it doing in society? 

And I come from South Africa, which, I mean, at some point we were colonized and prisons were introduced to South Africa by the colonizers. And, it’s very interesting when you mentioned that, when you talk about, you know, enlightened practices, prisons were introduced as

sort of enlightenment practices that are supposed to be better than, I guess, these archaic and barbaric methods that colonizers decided that indigenous people in South Africa had. And over time, I mean,I think they’re are a lot of parallels between the the United States prison industrial complex and what’s happening in prisons in South Africa and, you know, just even the racialized component.

And it’s very interesting how, you know, like the PR statement versus what is really happening can be so incredibly different. So thank you both for those insights. To my understanding, solitary confinement doesn’t just affect the victim who is detained and sent to solitary confinement, right? It affects community that even affects the prison staff.

Right? So it is in all our best interests to end it. And I’d like to give both of you an opportunity to share some ideas on how anyone listening to this podcast could perhaps get involved in the fight against solitary confinement. 

Jean Casella: The good news is that there has been in the last especially five years, a very growing grassroots movement.

About two years ago, they began working together in coalition, under an umbrella organization called the Unlock the Box, which is a national campaign to end solitary confinement and bring the United States in compliance with the Mandela rules within 10 years,

that’s our stated goal. And then there are now close to 20 state campaigns that are part of that. And you see again, as Clara mentioned, in New York state after I think a seven or eight year battle, finally passage of a bill called the Humane Alternatives to Long-term Solitary, which is shortened to Halt Solitary Confinement Act, which will put into place something close to the Mandela rules in terms of the limits that have places on solitary confinement, a 15 day limit for most people and a complete ban for the most vulnerable populations, which is, you know, miners, people with mental health diagnoses, people with other types of disabilities, et cetera.

So, that’s a really significant victory. The devil is in the details of course, and we’re going to have to be watching the implementation very, very carefully. We’re already seeing how with even less, sweeping legislation that states are finding ways to get around any kind of restrictions that are placed on solitary. But there is reason for hope and I would encourage people who

want to get involved in this struggle in the United States to go to the Unlock the Box website and see whether there is a campaign in your state that you can get involved with on many different levels, there’s many ways to get involved. I, again, I think solitary and incarceration go hand in hand and I would encourage people to think about it that way that it’s serving that larger goal

and not just trying to build a better prisons so that it’s kinder for people to stay there. I don’t think that’s anyone’s goal. But solitary is a matter of life and death. I mean, people are dying on a daily basis in these little boxes ,and not only that but the most recent study shows that when after people get out of prison and returned to their community, and this goes back to your question, Seadimo, that they are more likely to commit suicide in the two years after they’re released from prison and more likely to return to drug addiction and more likely to recidivate if they’ve been in solitary during their time in prison.

So this has just vast impacts. And I think the first thing to do is to educate yourself, Solitary Watch and Human Rights Watch are obviously both wonderful places to do that. We are posting new information about solitary confinement, you know, every week on Solitary Watch, we have a lot of resources and you can sign up for our newsletter.

And for the more action-oriented things, the, again, the website of Unlock the Box to find out if there’s a campaign near you, to find out what you can do on a national level, to learn more about the personal experiences of people directly impacted by solitary. We’re very much part of the leadership of the Unlock the Box campaign.

Clara Long: I just wanted to say, just to put on the table, as we were saying it’s a ground game. It’s a question of touching so many different systems, which is why I think one of the most effective things you can do is find out what’s happening in your local county jail and your state prison system

and figure out a way to work with others to end solitary in those systems in your local immigration detention system document and end solitary and to move people out of abusive systems in general, not just end solitary, but to end mass incarceration and then mass detention

because that is where your political capital is the strongest, for the most part where you are. Because this is such a widespread issue in so many different levels, that’s a really important step for folks to take. 

Seadimo Tlale: I’d hate for there to be an important part of this conversation that I did not think about.

So I’d like to end the conversation by giving both of you an opportunity for closing remarks. 

Clara Long: Thank you. I worked very closely with a friend and colleague whose father was incarcerated for seven years during his childhood and held in solitary for long period of time.

And just thinking about that experience, you’re in the seven by nine foot cell, a steel cage, 23 hours a day. For one hour a day, you’re allowed outside into another steel cage. you may have a right to make a phone call, but that right is not upheld. My friend talks about, you know, actually never getting phone calls from his father, even on his birthday, not being able to maintain connection with these most key family members.

And how dehumanizing that is? And how harmful it is, not just of course to, to the person involved, but to all to the ripple effect out into the community of everyone who loves them or has connections with them and ultimately to all of us who are involved in a system that allows this to persist.

So, I really appreciate you pulling together this conversation, and I’m looking forward to hearing what Jean is able to read and and bring to us here. 

Jean Casella: Well, thank you, Clara. Okay,

so I’m going to read something that was written by a man named William Blake. And he has actually just been released from solitary confinement as a result of the efforts of the advocates in New York state. But he was in solitary for 34 years continuously because of an escape attempt when he was 23 years old.

And he’s a wonderful writer and this is something he wrote eight or ten years ago about being in the shoe, which as Clara said is the special housing unit. 

“I often stay awake all night to avoid the bulk of the madness that goes on in the shoe. It’s lonely time though. And boring time, like only shoe can be boring, which is boredom of a kind that nobody out there could ever comprehend unless they had lived in the box before.

Sometimes I read till my eyes go blurry, until I’ve got nothing left in myself to read. And I don’t have any more letters to write. And then I’m out of things to do. So I just sit and watch the cockroaches on the cell block go by. Sometimes I will go into a sort of stupid state, a feud call it, where I’m really not thinking anything at all,

just watching the black spots move on the floor. The lights will come on in the morning and I don’t even remember having one thought for the whole night. Sometimes I watch the roaches and I envy them. In my mind I have fantasized that I was a cockroach and I maneuver all through the halls of the prison,

walk under the locked gates, and stay close to the walls to avoid being stepped on by a corrections officer. Then I get outside through some crack or under some door, walk through the grass that looks like tall trees to me, my being a roach and small. And then I’m up and over the wall and out. Once I make it, I pop myself back to being human and I walk off into the night free again and not caring if I died that same night, just as long as I can see some jury trees and feel a breeze and know for an hour or two that I was free

again, that I live to see the outside of the prison before my time in this world was over. 

Seadimo Tlale: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing that. And thank you to both of you for sharing, you know, your experiences in the work that you do, some insights, that education that you’ve shared. Most importantly, thank you for availing yourselves for the conversation.

It has honestly been truly insightful to me personally. I learned quite a lot, even as somebody who was actively doing research in this field, and it is my hope that our listeners at home feel the same. To our listeners, thank you very much for tuning in. If you would like to be part of the conversation beyond this podcast, follow the Promise Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Solitary Watch on social media. Until next time, stay safe.