Solitary Confinement and the Eighth Amendment

Solitary Confinement and the Eighth Amendment

By: Alex Darby

Herman Wallace died of cancer on October 4th, just days after being released from prison in Angola, Louisiana, where he had been held in solitary confinement for the last forty-one years of his life.[1] Convicted of the murder of a prison guard, Wallace was released after a federal judge determined his indictment was constitutionally flawed because no women were included in the jury.[2] While in solitary confinement, he worked on projects, such as designs for his dream home.[3] Wallace stated this work “helped me maintain what little sanity I have left to maintain my humanity and dignity.”[4] Unfortunately for many in the prison system, maintaining dignity and sanity is impossible when subjected to solitary confinement, an issue with serious Eighth Amendment implications.

Prisoners held in solitary confinement are typically isolated in an eight by ten foot cell between twenty-two and twenty-four hours per day.[5] While the number of inmates held in solitary confinement is difficult to determine, studies estimate 25,000 are held in maximum security “supermax” facilities where solitary confinement is common, and up to 80,000 inmates are held in some type of segregated housing, separate from the general prison population.[6] Prisoners may be placed in special, or segregated housing units for administrative or disciplinary reasons, with harsher restrictions imposed on inmates segregated for disciplinary reasons.[7]

These conditions result in various health issues that range from acute to severe, worsening with longer sentences. While psychological problems are most common, physiological symptoms also appear in prisoners held in solitary confinement.[8] These symptoms include heart palpitations, insomnia, joint pain, and worsened pre-existing conditions.[9] Psychological impacts can be even more profound. Prisoners commonly show a range of symptoms stemming from anxiety, depression, cognitive disturbances, paranoia, and psychosis.[10] A prisoner at a California supermax prison noted the impact of solitary confinement on inmates, stating:

I have seen inmates lose their mind completely because of the sound of a light where they are yelling at the light, cursing at the light, believing that for some reason the [authorities] planted some kind of noise inside the light purposely…and so the inmates that ain’t strong minded, don’t have something to hang on to, the light, the sound of the door, can make them lose their mind… I found it strange, you know, how can a grown man, a very big, grown man, break down to a light. But that’s what [that place] can do[11]

The harsh reality for many of these prisoners is that they already suffer from some type of mental illness, and this is only worsened by their stay.[12] There is a significantly higher percentage of inmates with mental illness in segregated housing units that in the general prison population.[13] These psychological symptoms often result in self-harm.[14] In one California supermax prison, nearly 70% of the suicides committed in the prison were committed by inmates in segregated housing units.[15]

Solitary confinement is a relatively common practice in supermax prisons throughout the United States.[16] Prisoners have asserted claims attacking the conditions of solitary confinement as a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.[17] These challenges face significant setbacks. Circuit courts have held that solitary confinement is not necessarily cruel and unusual punishment.[18] Under these rulings, the punishment does not in itself violate the Eighth Amendment, but could potentially be cruel and unusual if there are other problems present.[19]

In Eighth Amendment challenges, the Supreme Court has held that prison conditions may constitute cruel and unusual punishment when there is “a substantial risk of serious harm” and prison officials show “deliberate indifference.”[20] The issue arising under these cases is that the “serious harms” often recognized by the court typically involve physical risks, not psychological ones.[21] To successfully argue a serious harm, an inmate must show he has been deprived of “a basic human need” and courts are hesitant to accept mental health as such.[22] This is especially clear in the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which prevents a prisoner from bringing suit – even an Eighth Amendment suit – for mental or emotional injury alone.[23] It is far easier to show physical signs of abuse, but this does not diminish the harm that can potentially be done to the mental health of incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement.

Individuals have previously been successful in bringing Eighth Amendment claims against conditions in solitary confinement, but the rulings often focus on the physical conditions of confinement rather than the solitary confinement itself.[24]

The Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted that the measure of the Eighth Amendment is based on “the evolving standard of decency that marks the progress of a maturing society.”[25] The court’s views on solitary confinement do not seem to be evolving along with the views of society. The focus on physical harm, while minimizing psychological harms inflicted on inmates, runs directly counter to society’s changing views on mental health. With mental health rapidly changing from a taboo topic to one of increased public focus, society clearly recognizes that mental health is often as important as physical health. Psychological harms are very real, and in many cases cause inmates to seek desperate measures, including taking their own lives. While a complete prohibition on solitary confinement is arguably unworkable in the prison system, the court system should have a way for prisoners to challenge solitary confinement based on its psychological impact alone, especially when solitary confinement persists for a substantial length of time.


[1] John Schwartz, Herman Wallace, Freed After 41 Years in Solitary, Dies at 71, N.Y. Times  (Oct. 4, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/us/herman-wallace-held-41-years-in-solitary-dies-at-71.html

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Solitary Confinement Fact Sheet, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2 (Last accessed Oct. 10) http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Issue_Spotlights&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=147299

[6] Jean Cassella & James Ridgeway, How Many Prisoners Are in Solitary Confinement in the United States?, Solitary Watch (Feb. 1, 2012), http://solitarywatch.com/2012/02/01/how-many-prisoners-are-in-solitary-confinement-in-the-united-states/.

[7] Special Housing Units, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2, 8-10 (Jul. 29, 2011),  http://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5270_010.pdf

[8]Sharon Shalev, A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, SolitaryConfinement.Org 15 (2008) (alteration in original), http://solitaryconfinement.org/uploads/sourcebook_web.pdf.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 14.

[12] Solitary Confinement Fact Sheet, supra note 5.

[13] Id.

[14] Shalev, supra note 6, at 17.

[15] Id.

[16] John F. Cockrell, Solitary Confinement: The Law Today and the Way Forward, 37 Law & Pshychol. Rev. 211, 216 (20012-2013).

[17] Id. at 215.

[18]Hawkins v. Hall, 644 F.2d 914, 917 (1st Cir. 1981); Sweet v. S.C. Dept. of Corr. 529 F.2d 854, 861 (4th Cir. 1975) Burns v. Swenson, 430 F.2d 771, 777 (8th Cir. 1970); Ford v. Bd. of Managers of N. J. State Prison, 407, F.2d 937, 940 (3d Cir. 1969).

[19] Id.

[20] Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 828 (1994)

[21] See, Cockrell, supra note 16, at 216-18.

[22] Christine Rebman, The Eighth Amendment and Solitary Confinement: The Gap in Protection from Psychological Consequences, 49 DePaul L. Rev.567, 603 (1999)

[23] Cockrell, supra note 16, at 17.

[24] See, e.g., McCray v. Sullivan, 509 F.2d 1332, 1337 (5th Cir. 1975)

[25] Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-01 (1958).

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