By Jamaica Kalika,
Special to the AFRO

Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MI-1) and House Democrats are leading the push to eradicate the punishment of solitary confinement in federal facilities with the End Solitary Confinement Act.

Bush, in partnership with Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA-37), Rashida Tlaib  (D-MI-12) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ-12), introduced legislation “to stop torture, save lives, and improve safety for everyone.”

The proposed bill would end solitary confinement in federal prison and detention facilities, with limited exceptions. A four-hour maximum detainment would be utilized as an emergency de-escalation tactic.  However, it would be required that facility staff meet with the person at least once an hour.

A fundamental aspect of the policy would establish minimum standards for incarceration, including access to 14 hours of daily, meaningful out-of-cell time, with at least seven hours of daily group activities such as mental health, violence prevention and reentry programming.

The act, if passed, would impose strict due process protections and create oversight and enforcement mechanisms, such as mandatory reporting and community monitoring. It would also incentivize states and localities to adopt similar bans and end the practice in state and local facilities.

“Solitary confinement is a moral catastrophe,” said Congresswoman Bush in a press release. “I’m proud to lead my colleagues, advocates, and survivors of solitary confinement in introducing this groundbreaking legislation. Together we will save lives by ending this heinous and immoral practice once and for all.”

A total of 122,840 people are in solitary confinement for 22 or more hours a day in the United States. In some cases people have been subjected to the punishment for decades according to report entitled, “Calculating Torture” by Solitary Watch and the Unlock the Box Campaign.

There has been international pressure to ban solitary confinement. The United Nations has condemned the dehumanizing practice on multiple occasions and updated the Nelson Mandela Rules in 2015, a minimum standard of UN rules for the treatment of prisoners to restrict the use of solitary confinement. 

“The United States is one of the few free nations that extensively uses solitary confinement as punishment for infractions. If the US wants to call ourselves the leaders on a global stage for humanitarian rights, then we must lead by example,” said Congresswoman Watson Coleman. “Putting strict limits on our use of solitary confinement will go a long way towards the creation of a more humane and effective incarceration and reform system.”

In 2020, a UN human rights expert voiced concerns at the excessive use of solitary confinement by correctional facilities in the United States.

“This deliberate infliction of severe mental pain or suffering may well amount to psychological torture,” said Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture.

Willie Hamilton spent 30 years and 110 days incarcerated in federal institutions. About 10 years of that time was served in solitary. 

He served a portion of that time in a maximum security facility, otherwise known as supermax or hypermax, where they only allowed one hour of designated out of cell time. The day’s remaining 23 hours were spent in a cell. The longest consecutive time he spent in solitary confinement was eight years at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md.

In this photo reviewed by U.S. military officials, an empty Alpha Block cell of Camp VI is now used to show visitors an example, Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“On the weekends, you didn’t come out at all,” said Hamilton.

His time at these facilities was characterized by inhumane living conditions and stories of torture and abuse by correctional officers.

“There was no oversight of that prison. Like you were there and there just was no help for you, recalled Hamilton. “These institutions are not designed for anything but torture. There was no rehabilitation factor because you cannot get any programming, no education, anything. They’re sole purpose was for torture.”

Lawrence Bartley, the publisher of the Marshall Project Inside, a nonprofit publication intended for incarcerated audiences, weighed in on the issue.

“Corrections officials and professionals have wide discretion under the banner of safety and security, to govern their facilities the way they see fit. When you have human beings with that level of power, there are some abuses that occur, and they become cultural over time.”

The National Institute of Health stated that placement in solitary for any length of time can cause severe harm and psychological trauma. It shortens lifespans and takes a devastating toll on the mental health of incarcerated people. The punishment is linked to self-mutilation/harm, suicide, heart disease, anxiety, depression, psychosis, mental and physical deterioration, and a significantly heightened risk of death. 

While those in solitary confinement make up about six percent of the total prison and jail population, they account for nearly half of those who die by suicide according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

“Solitary confinement causes additional harm in a system that is already harmful,” said Qiana Johnson, founder and executive director of Life After Release.

Those who spent time in solitary confinement saw increased rates of recidivism, an increased risk of committing more crimes after release. It also negatively affects a returning citizen’s probability of employment and ultimately a successful reintegration into society according to  Christopher Wildeman, a professor at Cornell University.

“You set people up for failure upon return to society, because they leave with mental illness. With all the added socio-economic factors, and the disability that a felony puts on an individual, it makes that person more apt to recidivate,” said Bartley.

Hamilton described his experience after his release.

 “I haven’t been in solitary confinement for quite a while, I still have those characteristics where I’m a little paranoid. Still not used to a lot of noise. I confine myself to my area and I just stay there. This is due to being housed in solitary confinement.”

People of color are overrepresented in solitary confinement compared to the general prison population. Black and Latino men who spent time in solitary were greater than their demographic portion of the general population. Solitary confinement sanctions disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.

“Merciless practices like solitary confinement directly target marginalized groups–including people of color, young people, LGBTQ+ individuals, and disabled individuals who are already disproportionately impacted by our prison industrial system–and cause lifelong trauma. We must end this form of cruel and traumatic punishment for everyone,” said Congressman Bowman in a statement about the bill.

In some cases, these “high-risk” groups are placed in solitary confinement by correctional officers for their own “protection.” According to a 2021 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, disobedience was the infraction resulting in the most solitary sanctions. Nonviolent, low-level disciplinary violations—such as swearing, disrespecting authority, or possessing minor contraband—were among the most frequent reasons people were sent to solitary confinement. 

“These are the people who don’t have a voice. These are the people who don’t have someone speaking up for them. So they’re easily preyed upon. They can get rid of you by putting you in solitary confinement. You can just disappear,” said Hamilton.

The movement to end solitary confinement in the United States has been met with bipartisan public support. The act is endorsed by the Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce and more than 150 legal, faith-based and criminal justice advocacy organizations. During his 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to reform the criminal justice system, which included ending the practice of solitary confinement. 

Last fall, Senate Democrats introduced a similar bill titled, the Solitary Confinement Reform Act, that would reduce the use of solitary confinement in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. However, Bush’s new law would end the practice completely and implement additional policy changes like mandatory reporting and programming.

A strong advocate for rehabilitation, Hamilton celebrates the aspect of the bill that requires “therapeutic programming.” He encourages the United States to adopt more forms of mental health support for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

“In our country, the United States, criminality coexists with mental health. There’s not enough mental health treatment for us. Mental health treatment for me, therapy for me, was so eye opening that it helped me transform my whole life. It helped me get a voice, helped me deal with some of the trauma I was facing. This all happens in therapy,” said Hamilton. “Incarceration is not a treatment. There has to be some formal mental health treatment. I stand by that.”

This legislation plays a pivotal role in the reformation of our outdated criminal justice system. The policy proposed is a crucial step towards creating a safer system that prioritizes care and restoration above punishment. 

To get involved in the movement to end solitary confinement visit or