Minimum Time Out from Solitary Confinement Federally Mandated, But What About the States?
Updated: Oct 23
It is no secret that solitary confinement can have a detrimental and lasting effect on its victims’ psyche and physical health. The literature asserting that solitary confinement should be considered a form of cruel and unusual punishment is overwhelming. Kenneth M. Cole III discussed the effects of solitary confinement in the Constitutional Status of Solitary Confinement. Cole wrote that even when the conditions and duration of confinement are not extreme, the psychological effect of solitary confinement is certainly destructive. Elizabeth Bennion and Laura Matter question the constitutionality of solitary confinement by arguing that social interaction is a basic human need protected under the Eighth Amendment. Former President, Barack Obama, has even gone as far as abolishing the solitary confinement of juveniles in adult facilities. Despite the research and the studies, solitary confinement still remains a prevalent form of punishment in U.S. jails and prisons.
It is doubtful that solitary confinement will be deemed a violation to the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment any time soon. However, the courts have expressed concern about the decline in mental and physical health that solitary confinement can cause. One of the major strides the court has made is recognizing outdoor physical exercise as a basic human need. Specifically, deciding that an hour a day of outdoor exercise can contribute to the psychological well-being of the inmate. In furtherance of this finding, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has required that all persons in solitary confinement within federal prisons be allowed at least five hours of exercise per week. Of course, this requirement is only applicable to federal prisons and those in federal custody.
State policies on solitary confinement vary greatly. Maryland jails permit twenty-two hours a day or more in solitary confinement. This means there is no cap for the amount of hours a day an inmate is in solitary confinement and also does not provide a required minimum for time out of solitary confinement. At the other end of the scale is Colorado, who allots twenty hours per week outside the cell, ten of which are dedicated to counseling and programming. Other states, such as Virginia, have decreased the use of solitary confinement as a whole. Unfortunately, there is no uniformity for how states regulate time out of solitary confinement, or time outs. This is certainly a problem because states can require as little as one hour a week for time outs.
Because solitary confinement can cause significant damage to mental health, sufficient time outs are necessary to combat mental health consequences. Stuart Grassian, a Board Certified Psychiatrist and former faculty of Harvard Medical School, found that solitary confinement significantly impairs one’s ability to respond to his environment. Furthermore, solitary confinement contributes to suicidal idealization, increased resentment toward guards, and the development of paranoid personality disorder. Assessing these side effects, one hour a week is not at all conducive to minimize the harms of solitary confinement.
The federal courts have not established a bright line rule for how much time out of solitary confinement must be granted to prisoners for state courts to reference. However, research asserts outdoor exercise, and even social interaction, as a basic human need. One hour out confinement when a person may be in solitary confinement for twenty-two or more hours a day is insufficient. That is not to say that all states should be required to provide 20 hours outside of confinement. Instead, states should be required to abide by a minimum time out mandate. The Federal Bureau of Prison’s five hour minimum is a starting point to determine what amount of time is reasonable for states to follow in order to combat the harmful consequences to solitary confinement.