Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Mass Solitary and Mass Incarceration: Explaining the Dramatic Rise in Prolonged Solitary in America's Prisons

Mass Solitary and Mass Incarceration: Explaining the Dramatic Rise in Prolonged Solitary in America's Prisons

Lobel, Jules. “Mass Solitary and Mass Incarceration: Explaining the Dramatic Rise in Prolonged Solitary in America’s Prisons.” Northwestern University Law Review 115, no. 1 (2020), 159-210.

 

This journal article published in the Northwestern University Law Review explores the rise of solitary confinement in the United States in the late twentieth century with the eruption of supermax prisons. In these facilities, incarcerated people spend up to 23 hours a day in isolation with little or no access to congregate activities. The rise of supermax prisons dramatically increased the practice of solitary confinement in the United States, with a Bureau of Justice Statistics report stating that between 1995 and 2000, the growth rate of incarcerated people in restrictive housing was far higher than the growth rate of the overall prison population in the United States. 

The article critically reflects on the common narrative that the use of solitary confinement grew as a reaction to increased prison violence partly due to gang activity. Lobel suggests an alternative explanation upheld by recent scholarship, that the rise of mass incarceration and prison isolation are deliberate methods of social control. The deployment of solitary was a method to assert control in response to increased prison strikes and protests calling for racial justice and humane prison conditions inspired by the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the 1980s. Lobel connects this mass effort to suppress political organizing in prisons to the shift in the criminal justice system towards a preventative model that incarcerates and isolates people in high numbers in order to theoretically prevent them from committing future offenses. This article concludes by examining alternatives to isolation that could be implemented in correctional facilities to curtail the use of prolonged solitary confinement.  

Click here to read thjournal article. 

 

Keywords: solitary confinement, prison isolation, restrictive housing, administrative segregation, supermax prisons, social control, violence prevention, preventative model, alternatives to segregation