The Costs of Solitary Confinement

Originally published in The JHU Politik and then on WJHU Radio blog

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment that goes by many names, ranging from “administrative segregation” to “disciplinary confinement” to “security housing.” All of these titles describe the practice of subjecting a prisoner to approximately 22-24 hours per day of isolated lockdown in a tiny cell. I am not going to focus on the moral implications of solitary confinement. Instead, I argue that we need to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement simply because it is far too expensive for our nation to afford, and because of its clear connection to an increased rate of recidivism when individuals are released back into society.

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of solitary confinement in the United States is not simply used for the most dangerous and threatening prisoners. It is estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are currently held in some form of solitary confinement, the majority of them having some sort of mental illness or cognitive disability. As of today, prisoners can be placed in indefinite isolation for months or years not only for violent acts, but also for ignoring orders, possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, or even for using profanity. Many are children that are kept in solitary for “protection.” Many are gay or transgender, Muslim, or senior citizens. Many have reported rape by prison officials, and many are sentenced for questionable political or religious beliefs. In Virginia, for example, a group of Rastafarian men were placed in solitary confinement because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.

If  the  use  of  solitary  confinement  were  limited  solely  to  the most treacherous and predatory of prisoners, then most supermax prisons—facilities designed solely to provide long-term, solitary confinement for inmates classified as the greatest threats to national and international security—would be relatively empty because there simply are not that many individuals in this extreme category. It is estimated, however, that at least 25,000 inmates are currently in supermax facilities.

Because the federal government wants to avoid appearing “soft on crime,” we have been spending exorbitant amounts of money, often without much oversight, to appear “tough” on security. One study, conducted by Jeffrey Ian Ross, a Research Fellow of the Center for International and Comparative Law, estimated that the average per-cell cost of housing an inmate in a supermax prison is $75,000, as opposed to $25,000 for an inmate in the general prison population. This is, in part, due to the higher staffing costs needed to monitor those in solitary confinement. Additionally, constructing supermax prisons is a very expensive endeavor; the construction costs, according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, are two to three times more expensive than a maximum-security prison.

As state budget cuts are being applied across the country to education, healthcare, social programs, housing subsidies and more, we simply cannot afford to be spending such ridiculous sums of taxpayer money on solitary confinement units. This is especially true when research, like the study conducted in 2006 by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, shows that solitary confinement has been found to cause serious psychological damage to inmates. Consequently, this psychological damage has been contributing to an increase in recidivism when individuals are released directly back into the general population.

Some states are already leading the way to reform this expensive and unhelpful system. Recently, Mississippi has reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and it has closed down its supermax unit. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers an estimated $8 million per year.

The financial costs attached to solitary confinement are clear and untenable. Even disregarding the shockingly high rates of suicide for prisoners in solitary confinement, and the fact that prisons have become the largest inpatient psychiatric centers over the past thirty years, we should work immediately to reduce the number of individuals in solitary confinement simply for the sheer economic savings it would bring – savings that we as a country greatly need.

Much of the research for this article came from where I am currently interning.


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