CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Solitary confinement is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment that amounts to torture and must no longer be used in the United States, according to Solitary Confinement as Torture, a new report released by the Human Rights Policy Seminar at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

The report, made in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, North Carolina Stop Torture Now, and the law firm of Edelstein and Payne, uses research and interviews with prisoners to shine a light on the cruel and ineffective use of solitary confinement in prisons, with a particular focus on North Carolina. It explains how solitary confinement cannot be squared with state, national, and international human rights laws, and offers a series of recommendations for reform.

“Solitary confinement violates the boundaries of human dignity and justice and should no longer be tolerated in North Carolina or anywhere else,” said Deborah M. Weissman, the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, who served as faculty adviser for the report. “The evidence shows that solitary confinement is not only ineffective at decreasing violence, preserving public safety, or managing scare monetary resources, but more importantly, it often arbitrarily subjects inmates to circumstances that can be described only as torture.”

The report found that in recent years, as much as 10 percent of North Carolina’s prison population was placed in long-term solitary confinement at any given time – a number higher than many other states – often for such minor infractions as using profanity. At least 21 percent of North Carolina prisoners placed in solitary require some kind of mental health treatment. Earlier this year, Michael Anthony Kerr, a North Carolina inmate with severe mental illness, died of thirst after being held in solitary for 35 days. 

“For many prisoners, solitary confinement is a sentence worse than death,” said Mark E. Bowers, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. “Prisoners placed in solitary are unable to take care of their most basic needs and are often dehumanized by prison guards with very little oversight or proper medical care.”

The report outlines how North Carolina, by having a very low threshold for placing prisoners in solitary and “almost a complete disregard of prisoners’ average mental health needs,” fails to protect prisoners’ health and mental well-being or provide adequate opportunities for rehabilitation or successful reintegration into society upon release.   

It concludes by advocating systemic reforms including reducing prison populations, emphasizing rehabilitation, changing institutional prison culture, and ultimately banning solitary confinement.

Background:

Solitary confinement refers to the process of isolating a prisoner from the general prison population for anywhere from 22 to 24 hours a day, often in a small concrete box. In most cases, prisoner privileges are severely restricted and prisoners are often only permitted to leave their cells for one hour, three to five days a week to go to areas as small and controlled as their cell for recreation. When they do leave their cells, prisoners are often shackled and accompanied by multiple guards. Isolation is generally used as a punishment, but prisoners can also find themselves isolated for purported safety reasons or control during investigation or transfer, or while on death row or awaiting assignment.

The Report:

The principal authors of Solitary Confinement as Torture are Mark Bowers, Patricia Fernandez, Megha Shah, and Katherine Slager. Kelly Crecco and Susanna Wagar are collaborating authors.

Read the report.

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