Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Consensus Statement from the Santa Cruz Summit on Solitary Confinement and Health

Consensus Statement from the Santa Cruz Summit on Solitary Confinement and Health

Consensus Statement from the Santa Cruz Summit on Solitary Confinement and Health.” Northwestern University Law Review 115, no. 1 (2020), 335-360.


This statement published in the Northwestern University Law Review summarizes the events and conclusions of the Santa Cruz Summit on Solitary Confinement and Health in 2018. The statement provides background information on the overuse and harms of solitary confinement in the United States and explains international attempts to curb its use such as the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement and the Mandela Rules 

The purpose of the summit was to produce eight guiding principles meant to support the advancement of solitary confinement reform in the United States and internationally. An overview of the events of the Summit is included, as well as a brief explanation of the process taken by participants to arrive at the eight guiding principles. In addition to outlining the rationale behind each principle, a short commentary is provided on each, reviewing any relevant debates or discussions which occurred at the summit. Most notable was a discussion on the medical ethics of treating patients in solitary confinement, as it may contradict the affirmative duty of health care providers to oppose the practice. 

The principles: 

  1. The Santa Cruz Summit on Solitary Confinement and Health reaffirms the Istanbul Statement as an appropriate framework for reforming solitary confinement. Existing research clearly establishes that solitary confinement subjects prisoners to significant risk of serious harm and it therefore should be used only when absolutely necessary, and only for the shortest amount of time possible. 
  2. The Summit reaffirms that the use of solitary confinement should be absolutely prohibited for certain groups of especially vulnerable persons, including the mentally ill, children, older adults, people with chronic health conditions that are treated with exercise (e.g., diabetes and heart disease) and pregnant women. Prohibitions for additional groups of people may become necessary if emerging evidence indicates such exclusions are warranted. 
  3. Reduction in the use of solitary confinement should be further informed by the growing evidence-based knowledge that prolonged isolation accomplishes few if any legitimate penological purposes and, conversely, that it is likely to impede rehabilitation and community reintegration. 
  4. Solitary confinement reform is consistent with ongoing efforts to address and enhance correctional officer health and wellness, which can be adversely affected by the inhumane conditions and practices that often exist inside isolation units. 
  5. The unique ethical challenges faced by correctional medical and mental health care providers who work inside solitary confinement units are not easily resolved and serve as additional professional justifications for greatly restricting its use and prohibiting outright especially vulnerable populations from being subjected to the practice. 
  6. Meaningful forms of independent external and internal monitoring and oversight are essential to buttress and advance solitary confinement reform and should aid in reducing the considerable variation in policy and practice between different correctional systems. 
  7. As more prison systems significantly limit or eliminate solitary confinement, it is important that stakeholders document and disseminate evidence about the impact of these reforms, including that well-designed, properly implemented changes can reduce harm to incarcerated persons and correctional staff and, in many cases, enhance public safety and security inside correctional facilities and for the public at large. 
  8. Because the overuse of solitary confinement reflects and is related to dysfunction in the larger correctional systems in which it is deployed, its reform should be recognized as part of the broader movement to reform prisons generally and to end the overuse of incarceration and the policies and practices that give rise to it. 

Click here to read the statement. 


Keywords: solitary confinement, restrictive housing, prison segregation, administrative segregation, health care, medical ethics, summit, Istanbul statement, Santa Cruz Summit, international human rights standards.