For immediate release
July 25, 2006
Emily Lenzner, NPR: | 202.513.2754

Solitary Confinement: How Effective Is It?

NPR News Examines the State of Solitary Confinement in a Three Part Series to Air on All Things Considered Wednesday, July 26 - Friday July 28

Washington, D.C. -- There is a prison system in this country where 25,000 inmates are kept in isolation. They spend 23 hours a day in a cement box no bigger than a bathroom. There's almost no contact with the outside world, and in many cases, almost no way out. This is what solitary confinement looks like in the 21st century. It's moved out of the prison basement and into new, high-tech facilities built just for isolation. It's called many things - Supermax, intensive management, secure housing. But the meaning is the same. Years alone - out of public view and away from public oversight. In a three-part series airing on NPR's All Things Considered, Wednesday July 26 - Friday July 28, NPR reporter Laura Sullivan examines the state of solitary confinement in the United States.

Sullivan traveled across the country, going inside isolation units, speaking with inmates through the nickel sized holes that punctuate their prison doors, meeting the men and women who work inside these units and those who determine who enters solitary and for how long. There are inmates in this country who have been in isolation for more than 20 years, and after spending years alone in their cells, almost all of them will one day be released back into the public. For some prisoners, their interview with Sullivan was their first human contact in years.

An inmate at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem described his experience to Sullivan: "What is the most difficult part about isolation? I think not being able to see somebody face to face like I'm looking at you; to communicate, to touch, to hug, to feel loved, to feel human."

In part one, airing Wednesday July 26, Ms. Sullivan makes a rare visit to Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, one of the country's oldest and largest isolation units and the model for several other states. Most of Pelican Bay's 1200 inmates serving in isolation are suspected of prison gang involvement and identified as the most dangerous inmates in California. According to state prison officials, 70% of California's prisons are in some way affiliated with gangs.

Said Pelican Bay's Associate Warden Larry Williams, "Pelican Bay was designed to make the inmates feel and to let society know, this is the end of the road. If you have to be housed in this facility you are the worst inmates we have." As Ms. Sullivan reports, the state's answer to this growing problem is solitary housing units like Pelican Bay. But does isolation work or are there other more effective ways to control prison violence?

In part two, Ms. Sullivan speaks with prison officials from around the country, who are rethinking the idea of isolation and looking at the alternatives. Don Cabana, the former warden for Parchman, a prison deep in the farmlands of Mississippi, built an isolation unit when the increase in violence among inmates began to threaten the well-being of his guards. The only solution at the time seemed to be solitary confinement. But as he explains to NPR's Sullivan, not only did the inmates' behavior start to worsen, but so did the guards': "Inmate hauls off and spits at you - yeah you want to slap tee-total crap out of them into the next cell. Problem is that takes you down to his level and we're supposed to be better than that," Said Cabana. "I think what we're doing in supermax, is I think we're taking some bad folks and we're making them even worse, we're making them even meaner."

Sullivan also visited prisons in Oregon and High Desert, California, which are employing new methods for transitioning inmates out of solitary confinement back into the general prison population. While some states continue to release inmates directly from isolation to the outside world, other systems, like Oregon's, work to ease them back into society through classes and prison jobs.

Ms. Sullivan's third report for air Friday July 28, looks at life after solitary. She spends the day with Daud Tulam, a released inmate as he adjusts to life after spending 18 years in solitary confinement in a New Jersey prison. Now on the outside, Tulam is living at home again and struggling with common every day things like small talk, loud noises, and simply being with people.

Sullivan's solitary confinement series will also be featured on starting Wednesday with a timeline looking at the history of solitary confinement; an audio first-hand account from former Oregon prison guard, Gary Harkins, who recently retired after decades of working solitary; and a Q&A with a representative from Human Rights Watch and a legal affairs expert from the Cato Institute on the pros and cons of isolation. Text versions of all three pieces will also be available at