Subject/Title: Proposed Actions Regarding Solitary Confinement

Date: January 8, 2016

Prepared by: Moya Atkinson, Convener and Member of the Social Workers against Solitary Confinement Task Force (SWASC TF)*

Action(s) Required by the Board (give options if necessary): The members of the Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement Task Force (SWASC TF) request that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) agree to take the following actions to support the end of solitary confinement (SC), consistent with its Code of Ethics, its International Policy on Human Rights in Social Work Speaks, and its Testimony before the Senate’s Committee on Human Rights, 2012 and include our SWASC TF in its deliberations.

1) Pass a Resolution that endorses and supports the statements of Juan Mendez, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment against the practice of solitary confinement. In the Resolution, state that it is unethical for members of the profession to act in such a way as to support solitary confinement in any circumstances, and that those social workers who advocate on behalf of human rights and are threatened with recrimination are given the full support of the profession.

2) Establish a committee to address the ethical and legal issues pertaining to the work of social workers in corrections facilities where solitary confinement exists. The SWASC TF is prepared to collaborate with such a NASW committee.

3) Develop and publicize a Policy Statement against solitary confinement in NASW’s publications, web site and social media. (See the Policy Statement of the American Public Health Association as an example.)

4) Include all legislation relating to solitary confinement for review by the NASW Action Center and encourage chapters/states to do likewise.

5) Update NASW’s Social Work Speaks, the Social Work Encyclopedia’s section on Prison Social Work, its article on careers in prison work, and its advocacy article Social Work & Criminal Justice to include educational and advocacy materials regarding solitary confinement.

6) Direct the current NASW representative to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) to support our task force’s original request to require that prisoners with mental illness and all other prisoners be excluded from being placed in segregated housing. Also follow up with our recent expression of concern to NCCHC that Standards for Segregated Inmates exist at all, when SC should be abolished.

Summary of the Issue (include background/history): Please refer to the article for CSWE “Solitary Confinement: Social Workers Call for an End to this Torturous Practice” by S. Megan Berthold, Mary Buser and Moya Atkinson, as well as to our task force’s Memorandum, submitted to members of NASW’s Board of Directors and National Ethics Committee in August, 2015. We also find NASW’s International Policy on Human Rights to provide an important foundation for this issue.

The SWASC TF’s Ethical Concerns: Social workers operate under a Code of Ethics that supports the “inherent dignity and worth of the person” In imposing solitary confinement, human dignity and worth is stripped away. Solitary confinement is damaging to all humans, and especially so for juveniles, the elderly, transgender people, and people with mental illness and other disabilities. It is used disproportionately as a form of punishment for Black and Latino prisoners of color. The treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement is a human rights issue. We refer you to:

  1. NASW’s Code of Ethics
  2. NASW’s International Policy on Human Rights:

“Recognizing that social workers that advocate on behalf of human rights can become subject to reprisal, NASW should ensure that social workers that are threatened are given the full support of the profession;”

  1. NASW’s Testimony on Reassessing Solitary Confinement, at the Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, 2012:

“…there is a significant long-lasting psychological and psychiatric impact on inmates that experience extended periods of solitary confinement… The inadequacy of the prison system to deal with mental illness, results in a cycle wherein emotionally troubled inmates enter solitary confinement, anger builds as a result of isolation, and eventually the inmate may lash out, resulting in an extended term in solitary.” (Solitarywatch.http://solitarywatch.files.wordpress.comJ2011/06/fact-sheet-psychological-effects-of-solitary-confinement3.pdf); and

  1. Rena Malai’s article on criminal justice reform in the November, 2015 issue of NASW News quoting Melvin Wilson, NASW’s Manager, Social Justice and Human Rights:

“NASW recognizes there is a deep need for solitary-confinement reform, he says, and legislation and policies moving toward those reforms do exist” (Malai, R. (2015, Nov.). Fighting for a fairer system: Social workers discuss criminal justice reform. NASW News, 60(10). Retrieved from

Background on the NASW’s and our Task Force’s Relationship:

Our task force members have been working with NASW in various capacities since April 2014. See the attached summary.

Our task force is committed to helping social workers to oppose solitary confinement as a human rights violation. We sent a Memorandum to the NASW BOD and NEC requesting their assistance and offering our help to remedy abuses in the system on August 11, 2015, with nearly 100 signatories. Our task force members are here to collaborate with NASW to develop its efforts to work with allied organizations to end solitary confinement.

Attach additional information as needed:


Past Actions by the Board, Delegate Assembly (if any) that relate to the issue:

  • NASW’s Code of Ethics
  • NASW’s International Policy on Human Rights
  • NASW’s Testimony at the Senate Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement, 2012

Current Policies/Practices that impact the issue:

Policies: NASW’s International Policy on Human Rights speaks directly to the need for NASW to politicize and broaden its focus on human rights abuses, including those committed by social workers and others seeking to help prisoners in inhuman, degrading, cruel, and even torturous situations.

Practices: Our task force members have found a lack of updated information on the Criminal Justice System and solitary confinement. See above requests.

We strongly encourage NASW to provide support to social workers that work in criminal justice settings related to the ethical dilemmas they face and broaden their efforts to address the systemic and structural injustices and human rights violations posed by solitary confinement.

Consequences of not taking action:

NASW has a rare opportunity to lead globally in this issue; to seek fundamental social change of unjust structures; and to work for the abolition of solitary confinement so that social workers working in correctional settings no longer are faced with violating the NASW Code of Ethics and human rights in performing their job duties or risking reprisals. At present, social workers in these correctional settings are tasked with engaging in or turning a blind eye to practices such as solitary confinement that are in conflict with their ethical and professional obligations to uphold the rights and dignity of all prisoners. As Merlinda Weinberg wrote, “If workers were able to see ethics as extending to their positioning in social processes and their placement in institutional systems, …there would be the possibility of reversing the historical trend away from a technical function and toward the causes of social problems” (Weinberg, M. (2010). The social construction of social work ethics: Politicizing and broadening the lens, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 21(1), 32-44. Retrieved from

Fiscal Impact (estimated resources — money and personnel needed for this fiscal year): Mr. Wilson is very well qualified to work within the authority of his official position, and we ask that he be given the authority to take the lead to be determined in discussion with him, his supervisors and with members of NASW’s Peace and Social Justice Committee. Members of our SWASC TF and others whom we will recruit will help to fill the gaps in information listed above and recommend steps to take to reach our goals of ending solitary confinement. We will work with Mr. Wilson and the current NASW representative on the NCCHS Board of Directors, one of thirty-six board members representing their organizations.

We suggest that NASW and/or our task force apply for student and other internships and NASW Foundation and other grants, and also seek the assistance of ANSWER/Advocacy. Additional funding would provide for research relating to understanding the number of social workers and other healthcare workers involved; their role and influence, or lack thereof, on the operation of the current prison system; by giving greater authority to professionals in the fields of health, mental health, social services; application of preventive measures, based on models from other countries such as Germany and Scotland; and laws needed to mandate that health, law and corrections staff report instances of abuse, beyond existing laws, such as those on the prevention of rape.

List committees that have reviewed this issue. State their positions and/or their recommendations (if any):

To our knowledge, only our SWASC TF, which is not part of NASW, has sought NASW input on the issue of solitary confinement. Until very recently, we did not know of the existence of the Peace and Social Justice Committee, believing that it had been eliminated in 2002. We do not know if the Peace and Social Justice Committee has reviewed this issue or not.

We appreciate the work of several chapters working on solitary confinement, e.g. NASW-NC, NASW-OH, NASW-CA’s Women’s Council and its Social Justice Social Action Committee.

Staff Recommendation (including legal counsel if appropriate):

None, to our knowledge. Dr. Frederic Reamer who is closely allied with NASW made recommendations, one of which – to develop a Policy – we’ve included in our list of requests.