Advocates Push To Bring Solitary Confinement Out Of The Shadows : It's All Politics Some big states have been moving to limit the numbers of people they send to solitary, but officials say it's necessary to maintain control and, in some cases, protect the prisoners themselves.

Advocates Push To Bring Solitary Confinement Out Of The Shadows

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The case of Albert Woodfox led us to wonder how many people are held in solitary confinement in the United States. NPR justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson, has an answer.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: By last count, the Justice Department estimates about 80,000 U.S. inmates live in some kind of restricted housing. That means being confined to a cell for about 22 hours a day.

AMY FETTIG: You are going to eat, sleep and defecate in a small room that's actually smaller than the size of your average parking space, and you're going to do that for months, years and sometimes even decades on end.

JOHNSON: Amy Fettig runs the Stop Solitary campaign for the American Civil Liberties Union. She says solitary confinement is brutal and expensive.

FETTIG: So for example, in places like Arizona, they may spend $20,000 a year on a general-population prisoner. They're spending $50,000 or more on somebody they hold in solitary confinement.

JOHNSON: Big states such as California, Colorado, New York and Mississippi have been moving to limit the numbers of people they send to solitary or to limit the amount of time inmates live in isolation. Those restrictions would cut back on the number of people like Louisiana's Albert Woodfox who has spent 43 years in solitary. But corrections officials say they still need restricted housing as an option to control the most dangerous inmates. Here's Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, at a Senate hearing a few years ago.


CHARLES SAMUELS: We believe with solitary confinement for the inmates who pose the most violent and disruption within the facility, that we utilize it as a deterrent.

JOHNSON: For example, murderers, terrorists and inmates who hurt or kill people while incarcerated. Yet, advocates who fight solitary confinement say it's not reserved for the worst of the worst. Instead, they say, it's become a routine tool for dealing with unruly inmates, the mentally ill and juveniles.

IAN KYSEL: The children talked about wanting to die, about losing control, having hallucinations.

JOHNSON: That's Ian Kysel. He teaches at Georgetown Law School, and he's been interviewing young people about solitary confinement for years. Corrections officials sometimes put juveniles in isolation to protect them. But Kysel says many juveniles caught up in the system already suffer from mental illness and trauma, and he says putting them in solitary just makes those problems worse.

KYSEL: Sometimes even access to a book or to visitors or family contact is cut off once a child is placed in solitary confinement. And this really has an effect on children.

JOHNSON: The vast majority of people held in isolation live in state jails or prisons, so any changes to the practice happen incrementally, state by state. Still, advocates who want to restrict solitary confinement say they've noticed more attention to the issue over the past few years. The U.S. Senate has held two hearings and state legislatures, even more.

KYSEL: I really think that solitary confinement is no longer the dark secret of the criminal justice system.

JOHNSON: And Fettig, of the ACLU, says she's noticed that law enforcement authorities are more open to change too.

FETTIG: Corrections leaders are waking up to the fact that solitary confinement simply doesn't work, that they need to do something else. They need to give their staff more tools, and they need to use their resources to rehabilitate people and not just warehouse them.

JOHNSON: After all, Fettig says, about 95 percent of people housed in solitary confinement eventually leave prisons and return to the streets. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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