In the Cellars of Hollow Men: Use of Solitary Confinement in US Prisons and its Implications Under International Laws Against Torture




Pearl, Tracy Hresko

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Many prison administrators view the imposition of solitary confinement as a vital tool in maintaining order and discipline in their institutions. Since human contact is in and of itself one of the few remaining privileges in an inmate’s life, prison administrators reason that inmates are compelled to conform to prison rules and standards when faced with the risk of losing that privilege. Consequently, courts have given prison administrators discretion to determine if solitary confinement is appropriate. Over the past twenty years, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of inmates held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. These inmates spend between twenty-two and twenty-three hours per day in isolation, often for several years at a time, in stark cells frequently devoid of personal possessions, books, and windows. Medical studies on the effects of solitary confinement have overwhelmingly shown that it can cause severe psychological distress in inmates including, but not limited to, extreme anxiety, hallucinations, violent fantasies, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, and an increased tendency to inflict self-harm. Inmates in solitary confinement also have a substantially higher likelihood of being admitted to prison hospitals for psychiatric morbidity, a likelihood that increases with time spent in isolation. How solitary confinement in U.S. prisons violates international laws against torture will be examined providing an overview of the current use and conditions of solitary confinement in the United States, the relevant federal and state guidelines on solitary confinement use, the international standards on torture and humane treatment of inmates, and a discussion of recommendations to bring the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. in line with applicable international law.



solitary confinement, prison administration, international law, torture, Supermax, Prison Litigation Reform Act


18 Pace Int'l L. Rev. 1 (2006)