A Social Work Response to Solitary Confinement

Photo courtesy of dianediamond.net.

Photo courtesy of dianediamond.net.

In recent years, there has been a growing national movement to challenge the practice and premise for using solitary confinement as a method of behavioral control in the nation’s prisons, jails and juvenile facilities.The strong opposition to solitary confinement is primarily based on questions about the belief that use of such practices is a clear human rights violation.

Before we go further, let’s put the discussion in context. The history of the use of inmate solitary confinement (also known as inmate segregation) in the American correctional system goes back many years. However, more recently, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has begun to collect data on the application of such actions.

In an article entitled “Why work to reduce correctional segregation?, the Vera Institute for Justice states that since the 1980s prisons in the United States have increasingly relied on the use of segregation to manage difficult populations in their overcrowded systems. In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people in restricted housing units nationwide increased from 57,591 in 1995 to 81,622 in 2005.

Social workers who practice in adult and juvenile detention facilities are well aware of a legitimate responsibility that officials have to maintain order, prevent violence and to protect vulnerable inmates from sexual and physical abuse. However, the increased use of solitary confinement can create an ethical dilemma for social workers and other service providers.

The policy of solitary confinement/segregation is not only in place in adult detention facilities, but also in juvenile facilities. It should also be noted that there are primarily two types of solitary confinement. Disciplinary (is applied as punishment when inmates break the defined prison or jail rules while administrative segregation is used when prisoners are deemed a risk to the safety of other inmates or prison staff.

There is emerging evidence that conditions of isolation have become increasingly severe in recent years. Those conditions include super-maximum security prisons where prisoners spend years locked up 23 to 24 hours a day in small cells and “lock down” units in regular prisons where inmates similarly are isolated for 23 out of 24 hours per day with minimal human contact, exercise or access to reading materials. Research indicates solitary confinement can have a devastating impact on inmate’s mental and emotional health.

Solitary Confinement can have devastating impact on mental health

The effect is especially devastating for children and adolescents. It is estimated that up to 95,000 young people under age 18 are housed in adult prisons. Most of them are kept in “protective” segregation cells that are tantamount to prolonged solitary confinement. Juvenile justice facilities also use segregation as a disciplinary tool for rules violations.

Brain development research indicates that prolonged periods of isolation of children can have long-term traumatic impact on their emotional and social development.With respect to the relationship between mental illness and solitary confinement, it is widely known that the nation’s jails have become de facto mental health facilities. Many of the mentally ill in jails suffer from pre-existing severe mental illness. Prolonged isolation of such inmates will either trigger or exacerbate thought disorders, including delusions and hallucinations. Unmonitored segregation of the severely mentally ill also the risk of suicide.

Mental health is an area where social workers often play a significant role with federal, state, and county departments of corrections in providing assessment and treatment services. Therefore social workers have first- hand knowledge of the deleterious effect of solitary confinement and of the need for national standards for screening and monitoring mentally ill inmates placed in solitary confinement.

Social workers who practice in adult and juvenile detention facilities are well aware of a legitimate responsibility that officials have to maintain order, prevent violence and to protect vulnerable inmates from sexual and physical abuse. However, the increased use of solitary confinement can create an ethical dilemma for social workers and other service providers.

How should Social Workers Respond?

A social worker who holds a senior-level position in a large East Coast prison, who wished to remain anonymous, said a key concern is that very few prison systems in the United States actually have a social worker on staff.

“The Federal system has just recently started hiring social workers,” the social worker said. “Locally, there is one social worker for three federal facilities.”

Taking that observation at face value should give us pause knowing the need inmates subjected to solitary confinement have for assessment and treatment, especially for mental health problems. It is well known that prisons are the de facto mental health facilities. This begs the question why are we so understaffed with treatment professionals? This same social worker stated that inmates on segregation at her facility want programs, but they simply do not have the treatment staff to provide it.

There is a reality about solitary confinement from the perspective of prison/jail staff that should not be lost in this discussion. There is a need for discipline and control in prisons. When there are inmates with double and triple life sentences who then murder another inmate, what consequences should that person experience? How should we safely house a major gang leader who is the shot caller for violence against staff and other inmates, and community members?

Therefore, it seems that any approach to advocating against solitary confinement must be measured. For example, there are many from the nationwide movement against solitary confinement who feel, with a degree of justification, that solitary confinement is tantamount to torture. Those who accept this point of view will likely lean toward eliminating the practice completely. Others may not accept the torture analogy, but agree that there is a need to review how segregation is used and recommend nationally applied reforms.

In any event, the issue of the wide use of solitary confinement/segregation in our juvenile and criminal justice systems is controversial. Social workers, especially those who actually work in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities, have to make individual judgments about the ethical and moral implications of solitary confinement policies that they directly witness.

What is important is that social workers should become engaged in the solitary confinement discussion so that the profession can make an informed decision about our position on the issue and how to remedy abuses in the system.

MelWilson2For more information contact NASW Social Justice and Human Rights Manager Mel Wilson at mwilson@naswdc.org.




  1. I am both a psychologist and social worker, and I’ve been working toward abolishing solitary confinement in CA since the first prisoner hunger strike in 2012. I appreciate your article, but it is very conservative. Conditions in solitary confinement ARE torturous and unconstitutional, and downright malicious for those prisoners who are active in political education and organizing to change those conditions. Both the UN and Amnesty International have determined and reported on this, to no avail. Legislative hearings in CA – and US senate have resulted in deep concern about the torturous conditions, and demanded changes that are resulting in gestures.

    There are simple issues like delayed mail, no face to face visits, lack of means to watch decent TV or listen to radio, insufficient access to warm clothing, insufficient access to library or writing materials. Many books and political publications are banned. Family members struggle with long travel to visit their loved ones, and visits limited to 1-2 hours, behind acrylic windows, using a phone to communicate. But the real torture ranges from insufficient, unhealthy food, to unwarranted cell searches using pepper spray, untreated life threatening medical conditions and mental health issues, “”safety checks” – being woken up every 30 minutes at night, and on and on. But the real torture is being confined to cells the size of a bathroom for 23 hours a day, prevented from direct communication with other prisoners, for periods that would break most of us.

    There are about 1500 men in CA SHUs (Secure Housing Units) hundreds who have been in solitary confinement for over a decade, and some for over 30 years!! 23 hours a day in isolation, never having human touch, never seeing the sun, etc. Not for behavioral issues, but because they were considered to be gang affiliates and “security risks”. This practice was originally initiated to reduce prison violence, but has had no impact on that.

    Men are given indefinite sentences in SHU if they are considered to be gang members or affiliates, and come up for reassessment only every 6 years. (Prisoners sent to SHU for violent actions are given determinant sentences. “Evidence” for being sent to SHU include having the addresses of other prisoners in SHU, doing art using ethnic symbols, affiliating with men in your own racial group, and confidential and anonymous statements from other prisoners (snitches) that can not be challenged.

    There is a class action suit against CA Dept. of Corrections that is being aggressively fought by the prison officials, but only against solitary confinement 10 years or more, and to abolish the criteria of gang affiliation for SHU sentences. CA Dept. of Corrections is countering with a “step down” program that is questionable, and makes even more prisoners susceptible to getting SHU sentences for being a “security risk.”

    While there are psychologists who work in the prisons, they often just pass by the cells asking if the men are all right. Any therapy is done in the presence of a guard for “security” – and psychologists are prevented from communicating with the public about conditions inside the walls. There is no independent oversight at all – media cannot interview prisoners except if approved by the prison – usually snitches.

    I believe that psychologists and social workers need to stand for the abolition of solitary confinement except in extreme safety conditions and for no more than 15 days – this is the recommendation of the UN. It is a matter of integrity that we providers demand the practice be abolished, except as a last resort, and for brief periods, and that other options be developed and used. We also need to demand truly independent oversight by professionals who examine the conditions and the impact on mental and physical health.

    To do anything less is to be complicit with the worst end of the prison pipeline/mass incarceration.

  2. Over twenty-five social workers from around the country have recently formed a task force to confront the problem of solitary confinement. We thank Melvin Wilson, one of our members, for bringing the problem to the attention of NASW members and others with his thoughtful, measured article!

    We have had two meetings by phone and/or in person, and our third meeting will be a conference call on Wednesday, December 17, from 10 – 11:30 or 12 noon. We are in the process of developing a web site, a data base and list serv and welcome your active participation.We welcome your participation!

    Below are our Mission and Vision Statements in draft form.

    Mission Statement

    We are a national task force of social workers dedicated to confronting the issue of solitary confinement, both on a macro-level as a core mechanism of our racist and classist system of mass incarceration, and on a micro-level as a practice that social workers in correctional settings actively and passively participate in, while being simultaneously charged with upholding the human rights and dignity of all people.

    Vision Statement

    The practice of solitary confinement, which is the isolation of a human being for 22 or more hours in a cell, is often used indiscriminately in United States prisons and jails for extended or indefinite periods of time, is an extreme form of torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has stated that solitary confinement, also known as isolated confinement or punitive segregation, can cause irrevocable harm to vulnerable populations, like young people and the mentally ill, when endured for any amount of time, and for all others, in as few as 15 days.

    Our aim is to provide social workers and other mental health professionals working in solitary confinement units with a safe platform from which to explore the practical and ethical conflicts of working in this setting. We are also committed to collaborating with national social work institutions to take a unified professional stand against the use of solitary confinement.

    Specifically, we hope to:

    1. Develop mechanisms and policies that support individuals affected by solitary confinement, which include (something in here about a dialogue with these groups):

    • Individuals who have been held in solitary confinement for extended or indefinite periods of time;

    • Social work and mental health professionals charged with the care of individuals held in solitary confinement;

    • Correctional personnel who staff these grim units.

    2. Collaborate with social work institutions and other mental health organizations to take a public stance on the misuse of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment.
    Specifically, to:

    • Create and disseminate social-work specific reports and publications to activate the social work profession to action around the immediacy of this issue;

    • Mobilize a national coalition of social work organizations and other advocacy groups to push for the abolition of prolonged solitary confinement;

    • Reduce the use of solitary confinement by supporting alternative practices that provide for the safety of correctional staff, civilian health workers, and the larger inmate population, while responding humanely to problematic behavior inside jail/prison.

    3. Seek opportunities to influence policies on the federal, state, and local level to severely restrict the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons, and to eliminate its use for adolescents, people with mental illnesses, and other vulnerable populations.

    Please contact me, as the current convener of our meetings. I look forward to hearing from you and linking you with other social workers and organizations as we develop our base.
    Moya Atkinson,
    former executive director of the NASW Maryland Chapter
    moyaatk@yahoo.com, 703-941-3707

    • Hello my name is Jennifer and I have recently come to realize the torture that is done onto our local prisoners in solitary confinement. I started to wonder who would I go to with petitions and documents signed by professional doctors, therapist, psychiatrist, etc to fight against this. I sat and thought OK what if there was a way to at least get these prisoners some extra time out or some kind of human contact. Many ideas raced through my head. So I decided to Google who makes the decision of solitary confinement to be 23 hours a day. Then I came across this page and I was shocked to learn there are so many other people who feel like I do. It’s wonderful to know there are others out there with a heart so big. My question is, who do we fight, who do I fight, to get this changed. Would a strike with hundreds of people make a difference. Just many thoughts that I can write a book on them. I enjoyed your post and I was hoping that you could give me some insight on the matter. I am located in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and these ideas came to mind from watching a documentary on solitary confinement. Thank you for your time.

    • Please contact me. I only now read your Comment. I left a message two days ago with Dr. Jeffrey Draine, Dean of the Temple University School of Social Work, who has written in opposition to the use of solitary confinement for those with mental illness. There’s also another professor interested in this issue, Jeffrey Shook, a lawyer and social worker, at the University of Pittsburgh.
      If you’d like to join or task force, please let me know. I’d like your name, phone number, email and reason for interest/job. WE meet by conference call once a month. I can put you on our Doodle to find out what’s the best day and time for February.
      I believe the only real solution is for the associations to create a unified position refusing to allow their professional members to work under conditions of torture because it violates their code of ethics..In the meantime, we have to educate, advocate (within our profession) and support legislation and law suits. It’s a very uphill battle, with the federal Bureau of Prisons rehabilitating Thomson Prison in Illinois, Sen. Dick Durbin’s state….. But there are tools within NASW. NASW’s position as expressed by Mel Wilson puts social workers on the fence. I see it as very clearly a violation of our Code of Ethics to allow solitary confinement to be practiced. Probably, there are many who think it’s OK…. a challenge!
      Best wishes, Moya (Atkinson), 703-941-3707

    • Please contact me. We are a national task force comprising social workers who are opposed to prolonged solitary confinement. Se my comment above yours.
      I’d be happy to put you on our task force e-list so you can see what we’re doing and what we’ve done in the brief time since we held our first meeting in October, 2014. I contacted you in February. I hope to hear back from you.

      Moya Atkinson

    • Moya, please email NASW Human Rights and Social Justice Manager Mel Wilson at mwilson@naswdc.org.

    • What?

  3. As a senior clinical therapist at a women’s prison who works directly with segregation inmates, I can tell you that the use if extended solitary confinement is the real culprit. Human beings were not designed to tolerate years of isolation. A few weeks or months is totally doable, unless there is the presence of a severe mental illness. PTSD is perhaps the most pervasive diagnosis among isolated female inmates and it stands to reason that they should be receiving some therapeutic intervention while in segregation The NASW can help by making this a policy statement.

  4. This is very well-written and presents the many considerations of use of solitary confinement. This type of article cites the primary reason I became a Social Worker: to prevent abuses of persons incarcerated or hospitalized in a system.

    Thank you for advocating for professional Social Workers on these teams.

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