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How Much Solitary Confinement Is Too Much?

Prison interior. Jail cells and shadows, dark background. 3d illustration
By George Khoury, Esq. on May 07, 2019

The practice of solitary confinement may not seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but for the many inmates facing or who have endured long stretches in solitary, it can actually be a form of psychological torture.

But that doesn’t mean prisons have to stop the use of solitary confinement, after all it is often necessary to protect certain inmates from both attacks from other inmates and self-harm. This leaves the question open as to how much solitary confinement is too much? Unfortunately, the law does not provide a clear answer, and research on the subject has proved rather difficult. In one study, no test subject made it past seven days.

Solitary Torture

Stories of inmates being held in solitary for decades tend to illicit a rather strong response, but individuals held for much shorter periods of time can also suffer serious psychological consequences. While the extreme cases make it clear that the system isn’t working, courts generally do not order the system-wide relief needed to fix the problem so much as they order the relief necessary to correct the one egregious case before it.

Fortunately, at least for the inmates in solitary in the state of Virginia, some relief may be on the way if a recently filed lawsuit is successful. That lawsuit alleges that the state department of corrections uses solitary confinement excessively and for frivolous reasons, and has excessively restrictive barriers to inmates being re-introduced into general population after being placed into solitary. In response to the lawsuit, the state claims that it does not even have a solitary confinement program as it is explained in the lawsuit.

Prison Within a Prison

The Virginia solitary confinement lawsuit highlights a significant problem in the state’s program in that to be replaced into the general population, the inmates in solitary must complete a program that can take 15 to 30 months. Over that period of time, in solitary, an inmate can develop or have worsening psychological conditions, which could lead to even more time in solitary. While the United States has not categorically found prolonged solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment, the UN and others, have. And as the Virginia lawsuit, and other efforts across the country suggest, the time for solitary confinement reform might be near.

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