Between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners are detained in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons every day — some for months, some for years, and some even for decades. One in five adult inmates in state and federal prisons and 18% of those in local jails spent time in restrictive housing over the course of a year in 2011-12, including in solitary confinement or other types of isolation. They live inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day and are frequently deprived of telephone calls, educational programs, contact visits and exercise. Often, they live their lives in handcuffs and shackles. Those in solitary are at risk of suicide and self-harm. Solitary confinement is especially dangerous for those at vulnerable stages of development such as juveniles, or for those with compromised mental and physical health such as the elderly, some juveniles, and those with developmental disabilities or mental illness. Solitary confinement is a torturous, cruel, and inhumane practice that violates United Nations Conventions and Covenants. Still, it continues in the United States and in many other countries . Juan Mendez, the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, has called for its prohibition. Himself a survivor of torture, Mendez stresses that prolonged use (over 15 days) is torture and is damaging to all who endure it.
In its November 2014 “Concluding observations on solitary confinement as expressed in its 3rd and 5th periodic reports of the U.S.A.,” the United Nations’ Committee against Torture (UNCAT) questioned the United States’ statement that it does not systematically use solitary confinement; it recommended that the United States should:
(a) Limit the use of solitary confinement as a measure of last resort, for as short time as possible, under strict supervision and with the possibility of judicial review;
(b) Prohibit any use of solitary confinement against juveniles, persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers in prison;
(c) Ban prison regimes of solitary confinement such as those in super-maximum security detention facilities;
(d) Compile and regularly publish comprehensive disaggregated data on the use of solitary confinement, including related suicide attempts and self-harm.
In the United States, social workers provide services in those very prisons and jails that keep prisoners in solitary confinement units. Often these social workers and other mental health staff find themselves aware of—or even witness to—abusive practices that challenge their obligations to their profession’s ethical code. Our social work Code of Ethics rightly calls upon us to help people in need, to challenge social problems and injustice, and to respect the dignity and worth of every individual.
In April 2014, social worker Mary Buser, formerly an Assistant Mental Health Chief on Rikers
Island, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, entitled “Solitary’s Mockery of Human Rights” which exposed the horror of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Spurred on by this Op-Ed, in October 2014, social workers and allies from around the United States formed Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC) to combat the use of solitary confinement within our national borders.
SWASC asks for the support of social workers in its fight against this social injustice. SWASC has been partnering with national and international social work institutions and allied organizations to develop alternative humane measures for disciplining and protecting inmates. Under growing pressure to reform this practice, in January 2016, President Obama abolished solitary confinement for juveniles held in federal prisons. Several states have followed suit, abolishing solitary for 16 and 17-year olds.
Whatever the political pressures may be, SWASC members will continue to provide testimony, organize public education efforts, and incorporate information about solitary confinement in teaching and writing, as they urge the criminal justice system to devote resources to treatment and other alternative programming consistent with human rights for all.
As SWASC plans additional actions, including crafting a Shadow Report to submit to UNCAT at the time of its next periodic review of the United States, it invites others to learn more about its goals and accomplishments, as well as joining our efforts.