top of page

Prison Torture:The Problem of Isolated Confinement

Isolated or solitary confinement is the practice of placing incarcerated people for weeks, months, and often years at a time in cells that are about 6 feet by 8 feet, or the size of an elevator or an apartment’s bathroom, for 22-24 hours a day with the remaining hours in a small fenced-in cage attached to the cell. The practice was discredited and then discarded in American prisons in the 19th century and was almost never used until the 1970s, but with the growth of mass incarceration then and into the 1980s it became an everyday staple of prison life. It’s especially prevalent in state prisons (like the 25 here in Pennsylvania), despite universal condemnation from medical experts and institutions, nearly all mental health professionals, leaders of faith communities, and people who experienced and survived isolated confinement.  The lack of human interaction and sensory, physical, and social deprivation is known to initiate and exacerbate a host of mental health issues, to create indelible trauma, and to stunt body and brain functions that healthy and thriving humans need.

In 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur declared the use of regular long-term solitary torture and thus far too damaging to be used for corrections purposes. Prisons in the US have continued to use it every day, though.

Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be subject to an absolute prohibition.

- Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

Solitary Confinement in PA: By the Numbers

2,314 People

Were reported as being held in segregation in the state's Restrictive Housing Units as of February 2019, according to the PADOC. That's nearly 5% of the 46,374 people in county, state, and federal prisons and jails in PA.

90 Days

The maximum amount of time per misconduct an incarcerated individual may be sent to solitary, according to the Inmate Handbook of the PADOC

Over 50%

The amount of people sentenced to solitary in PA prisons for petty, non-violent offenses such as "failure to obey and order"  According to the Vera institute of Justice 85% of prisoners in solitary in PA are there for this type of infraction.

37 Years

The length of time Arthur Johnson spent in solitary confinement in state prison in PA. Despite stated policy, many people spend years, even decades, in solitary

bottom of page