Solitary Confinement and the U.S. Prison Boom

Published date01 February 2021
Date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(1) 66 –102
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419895315
Solitary Confinement and
the U.S. Prison Boom
Ryan T. Sakoda1 and Jessica T. Simes2
Solitary confinement is a harsh form of custody involving isolation from the general
prison population and highly restricted access to visitation and programs. Using
detailed prison records covering three decades of confinement practices in Kansas,
we find solitary confinement is a normal event during imprisonment. Long stays in
solitary confinement were rare in the late 1980s with no detectable racial disparities,
but a sharp increase in capacity after a new prison opening began an era of long-term
isolation most heavily affecting Black young adults. A decomposition analysis indicates
that increases in the length of stay in solitary confinement almost entirely explain
growth in the proportion of people held in solitary confinement. Our results provide
new evidence of increasingly harsh prison conditions and disparities that unfolded
during the prison boom.
solitary confinement, prison expansion, race and ethnicity, criminal justice policy,
prison conditions
A large research literature on mass incarceration identifies longer and more determi-
nant sentencing and historically high rates of imprisonment as examples of the United
States’ turn toward punitiveness in the latter part of the 20th century (Travis et al.,
2014). Empirical evidence has played an important role in understanding the causes
and consequences of mass incarceration, and numerous studies measure the increased
use of incarceration, disparities in sentencing, and postrelease outcomes. The experi-
ence of incarceration itself, however, has received far less attention, in large part, due
to the lack of available data. Thus, there are sizable gaps in our understanding of the
1University of Chicago, IL, USA
2Boston University, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jessica T. Simes, Department of Sociology, Boston University, 100 Cummington Mall, Boston, MA 02215,
895315CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419895315Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSakoda and Simes
Sakoda and Simes 67
internal workings of the prison and how it may have changed during a period when the
rate of incarceration rose sharply and the number of prison facilities tripled (Eason,
2016). This gap leaves several important questions unanswered relating to the nature
of punishment and social inequality in the United States: Did the experience of punish-
ment change during an era of mass incarceration and the prison boom? If so, did
extreme and harsh forms of penal custody such as solitary confinement reflect broader
trends of increased reliance on punitive control and racial inequality?
Using a large administrative data set covering 30 years of Kansas prison practices,
we study the conditions of penal confinement during an era of mass incarceration and
broad prison expansion, focusing on the practice of solitary confinement. A particu-
larly harsh form of captivity, solitary confinement involves confining an individual to
a prison cell for 22 to 24 hours a day and isolating them from the prison’s general
population. Individuals in solitary confinement have highly restricted access to visita-
tion, phone calls, showers, programs, and free movement outdoors. About 7% of the
prison population and 3% of the jail population in the United States are held in solitary
confinement on a given day (National Institute of Justice, 2016; U.S. Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2015), and the use of solitary confinement has grown over time, particularly
during the prison boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s (Haney, 2006; National
Institute of Justice, 2016; Shalev, 2009; Travis et al., 2014, Chapter 6).
Our analysis reveals that as the prison boom unfolded, solitary confinement became
a normal event during imprisonment, and the harsh conditions of such confinement,
especially lengthy periods in isolation, were experienced most often by young and Black
prisoners. Our findings reveal new details about the nature of harsh conditions during a
period of prison expansion. We find, in the case of Kansas, a hidden criminal justice
system within its prisons involving punishments, long periods of isolation, administra-
tive discretion, and disparities by race and age. We show that, during the 1980s and
1990s, when criminal law, policing, and sentencing policy became more punitive, the
experience of imprisonment changed significantly as well. Prior studies summarized
these changes in prison life with coarse measures such as the total incarceration rate or
the average length of prison sentences, treating prison experiences as a black box. Our
results provide evidence that the prison boom, which increased the number and size of
facilities across the country, resulted in prison officials gaining latitude for greater dis-
cretion in the types of confinement they could administer. In particular, this included the
use of extreme forms of incarceration such as solitary confinement, having negative
consequences for the most marginalized populations. Understanding the use of solitary
confinement during the prison boom and mass incarceration is vital to gaining a full
picture of the experience and consequences of punishment in the United States.
Solitary Confinement and U.S. Prison Expansion:
Capacity, Discretion, and Disparities Over Time
We focus on the use of solitary confinement during a period of prison capacity expan-
sion, beginning in the 1970s until the late 1990s. An explosion in prison building fol-
lowed rising custodial populations and problems with overcrowding and poor
68 Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(1)
conditions in existing prisons (Barker, 2009; Eason, 2017; Gilmore, 2007; Lynch,
2009; Page, 2011; Schoenfeld, 2010). In some cases, the opening of new prisons fol-
lowed litigation addressing these declining prison conditions (Rich, 2001; Schoenfeld,
2010). During the prison boom, the number of federal and state prison facilities tripled
from 511 to 1,663 (Eason, 2016). This expansion led to new forms of custody. In par-
ticular, the “supermax” or super-maximum unit, the highest level of custody in U.S.
prisons, became much more common during this period. Although there is no single
definition of supermax, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of
Corrections provides the following definition:
A highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit within a secure facility or an entire secure
facility, that isolates inmates from the general prison population and from each other due
to grievous crimes, repetitive assaultive or violent institutional behavior, the threat of
escape or actual escape from high-custody facility(s) or inciting or threatening to incite
disturbances in a correctional institution. (Riveland, 1999, p. 6)
Supermax facilities were rare prior to 1980 but later became ubiquitous across state
jurisdictions. The National Institute of Justice (2016) reports that in the 1980s, there
were few (if any) supermax facilities beyond the two federal supermax facilities in
Marion, Illinois, and Florence, Arizona. By 2005, as many as 44 states had these facili-
ties (National Institute of Justice, 2016). The proliferation of supermax facilities, how-
ever, does not account for most of the shifting conditions within prisons. Almost all
prisons and jails contain units dedicated to high-level custody (e.g., restrictive housing
units, special management units). Today, solitary confinement is common in both pris-
ons and jails (Arthur Liman Public Interest Program & Association of State Correctional
Administrators, 2015; National Institute of Justice, 2016).
The ubiquitous use of solitary confinement has come under legal scrutiny in recent
years. Since the advent of solitary confinement in the late 18th century, reports have
documented the deleterious effects of living in total social isolation (Arrigo & Jennifer,
2008; Grassian, 1983; Reiter, 2012). Field studies and expert witness testimony during
prison investigations describe how solitary confinement, sometimes referred to as iso-
lation, the hole, segregation, or restrictive housing, produces significant and lasting
psychological harm (Grassian, 2006; Guenther, 2013; Haney, 2003, 2018; Kaba et al.,
2014; Kupers, 2017; Reiter, 2016; Rhodes, 2004; Zinger et al., 2001). Long-term peri-
ods of isolation have been found to significantly affect neurological and psychological
health (Arrigo & Jennifer, 2008; Grassian, 2006; Haney, 2003, 2018), and this is espe-
cially harmful for young people as the human brain continues to develop past age 20,
specifically in areas of the brain associated with behavioral control, risk assessment,
and planning (Johnson et al., 2009; Konrad et al., 2013).
A debate over the harms from solitary confinement, however, has followed recent
quantitative studies by O’Keefe and her colleagues (2013), who find small positive
changes in reported mental health in a year of follow-up with Colorado prisoners.
These findings, however, have come under scrutiny in recent years, after methodologi-
cal problems were identified (Haney, 2018). Walters (2018) finds that mental health
deterioration may have less to do with solitary confinement than the experience of

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