February 25, 2014

As many as 80,000 inmates languish in solitary confinement in US prisons today. Locked down for up to 23 hours a day, for weeks, months, even decades, with little or no stimulation or meaningful human interaction, many suffer severe psychological damage. Based on years of analysis and research, Human Rights Watch is convinced that prolonged solitary confinement can violate the prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and may even amount to torture.

But there are hopeful signs that the tide may be turning against the widespread use of extended solitary confinement. One such is a hearing today, convened by the Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, on the “human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences” associated with solitary in US prisons. It comes a little over a year and a half since Senator Durbin held the first ever congressional hearing specifically focused on solitary.

Since the first hearing in 2012, we have seen some important milestones in the fight against solitary confinement in the United States:

  • The Senate immigration bill that passed in 2013 severely limited the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention facilities, and banned placing young immigrants in solitary. In September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a directive that increased oversight around the use of prolonged solitary confinement.
  • 30,000 California prisoners participated in a hunger strike in July of last year to raise awareness about the use of indefinite isolation in that state's prisons.
  • Most recently, the New York Civil Liberties Union secured a historic agreement with the New York state prison system to reform and restrict its use of solitary confinement.

There is much more to be done and US lawmakers must keep the momentum going after Tuesday's hearing. Human Rights Watch has described how youth under 18 are often placed in solitary confinement, which can impair their ability to rehabilitate and exacerbate short- and long-term mental health problems, and we call on the US Congress to ban prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, starting with any confinement facility that receives federal funds. After Tuesday, the United States should have heard enough – it's time to act.