by S. Megan Berthold1,2,3 and Mary Buser 3
1 Member of CSWE’s Council on Global Social Issues
2 University of Connecticut School of Social Work
3 Members of the Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement Task Force
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 (Beck, 2015). 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 (Kaba et al., 2014). 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 (ACLU/Human Rights Watch, 2012; Metzner & Fellner, 2010; Schlanger & Fettig, 2015; UNCAT, 2014). Solitary confinement is a torturous, cruel, and inhumane practice that violates United Nations Conventions and Covenants (U.N. General Assembly, 1966, 1984). Still, it continues in the United States and in many other countries (CCR/LSPC/CPF, 2014). Juan Mendez, the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, has called for its prohibition (Mendez, 2014; U.N. Human Rights, 2011). 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. (UNCAT, 2014, ¶20)
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 (Glowa-Kollisch et al., 2015). 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 (Buser, 2014). Spurred on by this Op-Ed, in October 2014, social workers and allies from around the United States formed the Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC) Task Force to combat the use of solitary confinement within our national borders.
The SWASC Task Force applauds CSWE’s commitment to advancing human rights (CSWE, 2015). We also affirm the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW’s) International Policy on Human Rights, which states that, “NASW must speak out against inhumane treatment of people in whatever form it exists. As social work practitioners and advocates of human rights: . . . Recognizing that social workers who advocate on behalf of human rights can become subject to reprisal, NASW should ensure that social workers who are threatened are given the full support of the profession” (NASW, 2000, ¶20). Speaking out against injustice and supporting social workers who take the risk to speak out are, therefore, priorities for our SWASC Task Force.
The SWASC Task Force 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, it is gratifying for SWASC to see the beginnings of change. In January 2016, President Obama abolished solitary confinement for juveniles held in federal prisons; and within the past year, on Rikers Island, this practice is now prohibited for juveniles and other vulnerable groups. In September 2016, the State of North Carolina will follow suit, abolishing solitary for 16 and 17-year olds.
These changes, though incremental, are encouraging and point to a turning tide against solitary confinement. In an effort to abolish it entirely, 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 the SWASC Task Force plans additional actions, including crafting a Shadow Report to submit to UNCAT at the time of its next periodic review of the United States, SWASC invites others to learn more about its goals and accomplishments, as well as learning how to join this effort by going to www.SocialWorkersasc.org.
ACLU/Human Rights Watch (2012). Growing up locked down: Youth in solitary confinement in jails and prison across the United States. Retrieved from
Beck, A. J. (2015, October). Special report: Use of restrictive housing in U.S. prisons and jails, 2011-12. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5433
Buser, M. E. (2015, April 4). Solitary confinement’s mockery of human rights. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/solitary-confinements-mockery-of-human-rights/2014/04/04/537f32b4-b9c5-11e3-9a05-c739f29ccb08_story.html
Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and California Prison Focus (CCR/LSPC/CPF) (2014, November). “The Use of Prolonged Solitary Confinement in United States Prisons, Jails, and Detention Centers.” Shadow Report – Prepared for the UN Committee against Torture in connection to its review of the United States of America’s 3rd to 5th Periodic Reports under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Retrieved from http://www.ushrnetwork.org/cat-shadow-reports
Council on Social Work Education (2015). 2015 Education policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education Press.
Glowa-Kollisch, S., Graves, J., Dickey, N., Macdonald, R., Rosner, Z., Waters, A., & Venters, H. (2015). Data-driven human rights: Using dual loyalty trainings to promote the care of vulnerable patients in jail. Health and Human Rights Journal, 17(1), 124-135.
Kaba, F., Lewis, A., Glowa-Kollisch, S., Hadler, J., Lee, D., Alper, H., . . . Venters, H. (2014). Solitary confinement and risk of self-harm among jail inmates. American Journal of Public Health, 104(3), 442-447.
Mendez, J. (2014). Juan Mendez – Briefing on Solitary Confinement. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nejXHCODUwI
Metzner, J. L., & Fellner, J. (2010). Solitary confinement and mental illness in U.S. prisons: A challenge for medical ethics. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38(1), 104–108.
National Association of Social Workers (2000). International policy on human rights. Policy statement excerpted from Social Work Speaks, 5th Edition: NASW Policy Statements, 2000-2003,from NASW Press. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/pressroom/events/911/humanrights.asp
Schlanger, M., & Fettig, A. (2015, October 6). Eight principles for reforming solitary confinement. The American Prospect. Retrieved from http://prospect.org/article/eight-principles-reforming-solitary-confinement-0
United Nations Committee against Torture (2014, November 20). Concluding observations on the third to fifth periodic reports of United States of America.Committee against Torture, 53rd session. CAT/C/USA/CO/3-5. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/234772.pdf
United Nations General Assembly (1984). Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 10 December 1984, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1465, p. 85. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ae6b3a94.html
United Nations General Assembly (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171, Retrieved from: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3aa0.html
United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (2011, October 18). UN Special Rapporteur on torture calls for the prohibition of solitary confinement. Retrieved from:http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11506.
Buser, M. E. (2015). Lockdown on Rikers. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement Task Force: www.SocialWorkersASC.org; contact Moya Atkinson at email@example.com
Solitary Watch: www.solitarywatch.com
US Human Rights Network website: http://www.ushrnetwork.org