On a mission to cut back on the use of solitary confinement in US prisons, The Obama administration is pressing individual states to join in. All over the world the use of solitary confinement is widespread despite having been condemned as possibly amounting to torture.

The White House and Department of Justice recognises that without the assistance of the state corrections departments and legislatures, the goal of reducing solitary confinement will remain a fantasy.

Obama has said the practice of placing inmates in tiny cells with virtually no human contact is overused and an “affront to our common humanity”.
Solitary confinement of prisoners goes by a number of names—isolation, SHU (Special Housing Units), supermax prisons, the hole etc. It is sometimes employed as a form of punishment beyond incarceration for a prisoner.

Solitary confinement conditions vary from state to state in the United States systematic policies. The conditions include:

• Confinement behind a solid steel door for 22 to 24 hours a day
• Severely limited contact with other human beings
• Extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programming
• Grossly inadequate medical and mental health treatment
• Restricted reading material and personal property
• Physical torture such as hog-tying, restraint chairs, forced cell extraction
• “No-touch torture,” such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures, and forced insomnia
• Chemical torture, such as stun grenades and stun guns
• Sexual intimidation and other forms of brutality and humiliation (source:

Solitary confinement has been largely criticized. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, has called for a global ban in all but exceptional cases. Scientific research has also found that solitary confinement has adverse psychological effects on individuals due to the conditions characterized by the confinement. These include individuals suffering serious depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, hallucinations and paranoia within a matter of days.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama announced far-reaching reforms that would dramatically reduce the use of solitary in the US federal prison system.

However, without support at state level, he is hindered in his ambitions. The figure of 10,000 prisoners held in isolation by the federal Bureau of Prisons is dwarfed by that of as many as 90,000 inmates kept in similarly harsh conditions in state-run prisons.

Author: Ope Adedeji