Solitary confinement is something we often get asked about here at Prison Insight. It’s a controversial subject politically—as it should be—because there is a lot of evidence that suggests it causes long-lasting harm on the human mind and body.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, on any given day last year, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 people spent at least the previous two weeks in solitary confinement in a state or federal prison.
Putting someone in an empty cell that’s smaller than a parking space is a popular tool among correctional officers because it helps them maintain order and deter gang violence. But, is this method doing more harm than good?
Our guest blogger today is Mistie Vance, who is currently serving a 20-year sentence at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri. She’s been in prison for more than a decade, and is not scheduled for parole until 2025.
I became good friends with Mistie when we served time together at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. She was my personal trainer and my aerobics instructor, and we often spent time together on smoke breaks or in the prison yard.
Here is Mistie’s take on today’s blog question: what is solitary confinement? In today’s post, she will cover the following topics:
- What is solitary confinement, and why is an inmate put there?
- What happens when an inmate is under investigation?
- The most common reasons why an inmate goes to solitary
- What is it like in the hole?
- Can a prisoner be sent to solitary confinement permanently?
- Is solitary confinement necessary?
- What are the reasons why solitary confinement should be banned?
What is solitary confinement, and why is an inmate put there?
Solitary confinement is when an offender is removed from the general population in a prison and placed in isolated lockdown 24/7 in a small cell that is segregated from the rest of camp. Usually, solitary cells are for just one person. But, on some camps there are solitary cells that do have two bunks (overcrowding issues). Oftentimes, a solitary confinement cell will not have windows. And, there’s just a small slotted opening in the door for food trays.
When you are in solitary, you don’t have access to any of your personal items that you would have in your general population cell—commissary items, extra clothing, TV, etc… You can’t leave your cell for school, work, or recreation. Basically, the only time you are taken out of your cell is for a shower and maybe an occasional phone call.
There are several reasons why an offender might be placed in solitary confinement, not all of which are due to behavioral issues. Investigation, protective custody, suicide watch, and possible enemy are just a few of the the reasons why an inmate would be placed in solitary.
Since I have spent the last twelve years in two separate women’s prisons, I can only speak to how solitary confinement works here. I can’t speak to the conditions in a men’s institution, as I have neither been to one, nor communicated with men in the institutions.
In the prisons I have done my time in, the first step in being put in solitary is called administrative segregation, or ad-seg. If an offender is placed in solitary for protective purposes, investigation, staff familiarity, or mental health reasons, it is simply administrative segregation.
If, however, you are found guilty of an offense, it becomes disciplinary segregation, or dis-seg. The latter involves a conduct violation, where the former does not.
What happens when an inmate is under investigation?
Let’s talk about going to solitary (or the hole, as we call it ) under investigation. If it is suspected that you are introducing drugs into the institution, having improper relationships with staff or have been accused of violating the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), you will be sent to the hole until the situation can be investigated and decided to be validated or dismissed.
This process is painfully slow, and can take months to resolve. In many unfortunate circumstances, offenders falsely accuse other offenders in order to have them sent to the hole as a form of revenge or out of jealousy.
The most common reasons why an inmate goes to solitary
The most common reasons an offender would be sent to solitary, are: fighting, getting caught in sexual situations with other offenders, threats, and creating a disturbance. These offenses normally result in a 30-day stay in the pokey.
If one offender throws hands and the other doesn’t, the offender who was guilty is found guilty of an assault, while the other is sent back to the general population without a violation. Since physical contact of any kind is against the rules in prison, many sexual misconduct violations are issued for offenses that aren’t in any way sexual.
I actually did hole time last year because my girlfriend said something obnoxious ( jokingly, of course – lol ), and I leaned in like I was going to tell her a secret and instead licked her ear : )
What is it like in the hole?
Let me take a minute to explain what it’s like in the hole. The process starts when you are placed in handcuffs and walked to the administrative segregation building. You are then strip-searched to check for contraband and taken to a very small cell with a sink/ toilet unit and a bunk with either one or two beds.
The only items you are allowed are soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, a comb, a flex pen, paper, stamps, envelopes and a religious book. Once a week you are given two books to read, books you probably wouldn’t read otherwise, and if you’re a fast reader, you’ll end up reading the same two books several times!
Three times a week you are cuffed up and taken out of your cell for a shower, most often between the hours of midnight and three a.m. Meals and medications are delivered at regular times each day, and are the only real way to keep track of time, as there are no clocks in the hole. Whether in a cell with a roommate or alone, it doesn’t take long for boredom to settle in.
I personally have been to the hole several times throughout my almost thirteen year incarceration, and I can attest to the fact that the experience is a very unpleasant one. The lack of physical activity (or at least space and options for activities if you work out in your cell), the absence of fresh air and sunshine, the loneliness of not having human contact (especially if you are in a cell by yourself)… they all take their toll over time.
Unless you have actually experienced it, it is hard to completely understand the effect this has on a person. The longer a person is isolated in such a way, the more profound the effect on the individual.
I know for myself, re- entering the general population after doing time in the hole takes a minute to adjust to. For one thing, the lack of stimuli one experiences during their solitary time leads to overstimulation and anxiety upon returning to GP. Social interaction is awkward and difficult, and it often takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to become comfortable being in social situations again.
Sleep disturbances are also common, as your sleep patterns change during their time in the hole and must be adjusted to being back in your normal environment. These are just a few of the ways someone who has spent time in the hole has to adapt to being back in the general population.
Can a prisoner be sent to solitary confinement permanently?
The only time a prisoner would be sent to solitary permanently is if that offender was deemed to be dangerous to other offenders due to their mental health. I have, however, seen women spend long periods of time in the hole for offenses like starting fires or escape. In extreme situations such as these, it is not unusual for an offender to spend a year or more in solitary confinement.
There are also some inmates who choose to do their time in solitary, as they have a very difficult time adjusting to the institutional setting. Sometimes they voluntarily check in for a brief reprieve and sometimes they just continue to get violations that insure they stay in the hole throughout the majority of their incarceration.
I should probably also mention that there are supermax prisons for male inmates that are designed for the most violent offenders. From what I understand, this level of security means that every inmate in the facility is essentially kept in solitary confinement for the length of their sentence.
Is solitary confinement necessary?
For a variety of reasons, solitary confinement is unfortunately necessary. For reasons of safety and security, there are circumstances where offenders need to be segregated from the general population in order to protect themselves or others.
Do I believe that inmates should sit in solitary for as long as they do? Certainly not. Do I believe that there is a more humane and beneficial way to go about segregating inmates until it’s deemed safe for them to return to the general population? Certainly. However, I cannot argue with the fact that under certain circumstances, the only safe option is to segregate the offender.
Take for example an inmate who is having serious mental health issues and is having violent hallucinations, resulting in the compulsion to perpetuate violent acts on other offenders. In this situation, the prison staff must protect the general population until the inmate in segregation is stabilized.
Another example would be an inmate who has self harmed and is having thoughts of suicide. It is very important to be able to monitor such an individual closely, to avoid the possibility of a successful suicide attempt.
When it comes to using segregation as a disciplinary measure, I don’t necessarily agree that it is necessary, or even close to being the best way to deal with disciplinary issues.
When we think of the prison system as being called the Department of Corrections, we like to think that measures are implemented to correct behaviors through education and holding inmates accountable for their actions in relevant and offense related ways. Isolating someone, especially for long periods of time, seems to work in opposition to the goal, adding unnecessary stress and behaviors, and difficulties upon returning to the general population.
What are the reasons why solitary confinement should be banned?
I don’t believe that solitary confinement can be banned in its entirety. For the purpose of protection, segregating certain individuals for a necessary (but not excessive) period of time is the only way to ensure the safety of that individual and/ or others. For reasons other than safety, however, there are several reasons I can think of as to why solitary should be banned.
Obviously, this question requires that I go beyond facts and interject my personal opinion on the matter. Not everyone shares the same opinion, so the answer to this question will vary greatly, depending on who you ask.
Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with offenders spending weeks, months or even years alone in a cell, segregated from everyone and everything. The fact that we are convicted of a crime is enough for some people to believe that inmates deserve whatever punishment we incur.
Being a human being with a backstory who has subsequently committed a crime and ended up in prison, tends to make me see things a little differently. Not to mention the tragic stories I have heard over the years of living so closely with other women. Life happens, and until you have been in any given situation, you really don’t know what you would do.
The most important reason I can think of to ban solitary confinement lies in the fact that, at its core, it is inhumane. The part of us that makes us human both wants and needs to be in relationships with others.
Whether you are a loner at heart or a social butterfly, you need human interaction in order to thrive. In numerous studies, especially those done in regards to infants, lack of affection and human interaction results in catastrophic consequences.
Something about who we are as a species and how we were created causes us to somehow be a part of a whole. Something more than just an individual in a sea of humanity, rather, interconnected at our very essence. A part of us dies a slow and painful death when kept completely isolated from others. Even animals are deemed as being treated in an inhumane manner when kept in a tiny enclosure for long periods of time without reprieve.
When inmates spend long periods of time in a solitary situation without adequate mental and physical stimulation, something changes in their psychological makeup. I am not an expert on the subject, nor can I offer irrefutable proof to support my opinion, but I have seen it for myself and wholeheartedly believe it to be true.
As a resilient species, we adapt in order to survive whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. That being said, what kind of adaptations do you think one would undergo in dealing with complete isolation from people, sensory deprivation, lack of mental stimulation, lack of exercise, loss of support system and extreme limitations in available options for practicing decision making and self expression? After a certain period of time, would a person even be the same person they were before being isolated? These are things to consider when implementing disciplinary segregation.
Hopefully, this helps you understand solitary confinement and can give you information that will aid in helping you formulate your own opinion on the necessity and humanity of segregation in prison.
If someone you care about has to spend time in a situation where they are kept isolated for a period of time, it is very important that they feel supported and loved throughout. Stay in close contact through letters and emails, giving your friend or loved one something to look forward to, some mental and emotional stimulation, and helping them hold onto some semblance of their humanity.
Even a situation like solitary confinement can be made a lot more bearable with a little love!
Would you like to write to Mistie Vance or contribute to her commissary fund? You can write to her at:
Mistie Vance #1231904
3151 Litton Road
Chillicothe, MO 64601
If you would like to deposit funds into her commissary account, you can do so at JPAY.com. Select Missouri — Chillicothe Correctional Center — Inmate #1231904 Mistie Vance.
Sources: Personal Experience Essay by inmate Mistie Vance at CCC in Chillicothe, MO. The research is clear: Solitary confinement causes long-lasting harm https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/12/08/solitary_symposium/