How Do We Reach a National Tipping Point in the Campaign to Stop Solitary?

Amy Fettig | August 30, 2020

The use and abuse of solitary confinement in American prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers is at epidemic levels. On any given day 80,000 to 100,000 people in prisons are subjected to a practice considered inhumane and degrading treatment—even torture under international human rights standards. Despite widespread international condemnation, decades of research demonstrating the harm it inflicts on human beings, and a growing chorus from the medical community raising alarms about its impact on the brain, solitary confinement remains a routine prison-management strategy in correctional institutions nationwide. In the past decade, however, a growing movement has emerged to challenge the use of solitary confinement. This movement is variously driven by civil society campaigns, the emergence of strong international human rights standards, allies in government, civil rights litigation, corrections leadership, and increasing levels of public information and media attention. The question remains whether the current reform movement will be sufficient to create a tipping point whereby solitary confinement is rejected as an acceptable practice in the American sociocultural context and legal landscape. This Essay examines the current factors driving the movement against solitary and posits that a national tipping point is possible with more concerted effort to shift public opinion; increased documentation, research and promotion of alternatives that allow for the safe, humane, and effective management of carceral institutions; and implementation of greater oversight and accountability in corrections institutions in the United States more broadly.