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How Long in Solitary Confinement Is Too Long?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

We've all heard about solitary confinement, where prisoners are kept in cells alone, with little or no human interaction. The practice -- sometimes used as punishment, or to keep the prisoner or other inmates and guards safe -- has come under additional scrutiny lately, however, as tales of abuse or exceedingly long stretches in solitary confinement have come to light.

One such story, that of a mentally ill Illinois man who spent over 20 years in solitary confinement, is now a lawsuit claiming that sentence amounted to torture. So, when does solitary cease to be an acceptable form of incarceration and become cruel and unusual punishment?

The Wrong Kind of Treatment

Anthony Gay suffers from borderline personality disorder was originally incarcerated for stealing a hat and a $1 bill. That crime violated his probation, and although Gay could have been released in three and a half years with "good time" credits, repeated infractions pushed back his release date. Prosecutors obtained 21 indictments against Gay between 2000 and 2004 for throwing feces at guards, according to the Chicago Tribune, and the lack of human interaction in solitary worsened his mental state, according to his lawsuit.

The Tribune also reported the self-harm Gay turned to as a last resort against loneliness:

He would mutilate himself in his Illinois prison cell, slicing open his neck, forearms, legs and genitals hundreds of times over two decades in solitary confinement. Once, he packed a fan motor inside a gaping leg wound; another time he cut open his scrotum and inserted a zipper.
Each time he harmed himself, he knew that, at least for a little while, the extreme step would bring contact with other human beings. Therapists would rush to calm him. Nurses would offer kind words as they took his pulse and stitched him up.

"It's kind of like being locked in the basement, and then emerging from the basement and being put on the center stage," he said. "It made me feel alive." All told, Gay spent 22 years in solitary confinement.

The Supremes on Solitary

While the Supreme Court has ruled that solitary confinement is a punishment, and therefore subject to constitutional limits on cruel and unusual punishment, it has yet to rule on how long in solitary is too long. But the high court may not stay silent for long. Former Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has attacked solitary confinement in judicial opinions and public remarks. And current Justice Sonia Sotomayor has expressed "deeply troubling concern" about solitary confinement conditions. "A punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual," she wrote in a statement when the Court declined to review solitary conditions in Colorado state prisons. "Courts and corrections officials must accordingly remain alert," she added, "to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners ... in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb."

Studies have found that about 67,000 inmates nationwide are spending up to 22 hours a day in solitary at any given time, and in Illinois, nearly 1 in 3 prisoners in solitary has a serious mental illness. Gay's lawsuit suit alleges violations of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the due process clause, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.

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