Ten things you should know about the USA’s brutal isolation chambers

The USA stands virtually alone in the world when it comes to incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long term or indefinite solitary confinement. Under the US system, inmates are held in small cells in harsh physical conditions and with minimal human interaction for years, sometimes decades. The mental health of many prisoners suffers greatly as a result and for some, the pressure leads them to take their own lives.

Here are some things you should know about one of the USA’s most widespread and cruel practices. 

1. Approximately 80,000 people are held in isolation in more than 40 states across the USA at any given time.

2. Isolation cells typically measure 3x2 metres and are furnished with a concrete bed, a desk and a sink. Many don’t have windows.

3. Prisoners are confined to their cells for 22-24 hours a day. Most do not have access to any work or rehabilitation programmes. 

4. Out-of-cell exercise is limited to between five and 10 hours a week and often takes place in bare, high-walled concrete yards providing no view to the outside, or even in small cages.

5. In Arizona, isolation cells are extremely unsanitary, with urine and faeces on the wall, as well as dirt, grease and blood caked around food holes.

6. Phone calls are severely restricted and in some cases completely banned. Visits are limited and take place with a glass screen between the prisoner and their visitor. Some prisoners said they had gone for years or even decades without seeing another human being, other than a prison guard.

7. Conditions in isolation units, combined with the lack of rehabilitation programmes, can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and create new ones, such as anxiety, depression and paranoia. Many prisoners also suffer from extreme weight loss and sight problems caused by the conditions of detention.

8. Prisoner suicide rates within isolation units are much higher than among the general prison population. 

9. Many prisoners are released straight from isolation to the community with no transition programme. In Arizona, for example, just before being released, they are simply provided with an ID and $50.

10. Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, called for solitary confinement to be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible. He said there should be an absolute prohibition on its use in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.