Solitary confinement reform is only for men, apparently
Updated: Oct 19
In March 2017, three male prisoners sued the Louisiana Department of Public Safety Corrections (LDOC) and the wardens at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for imposing conditions in solitary confinement that violated their Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment and their Fourteenth Amendment right to Due Process. At that time, male death row inmates in Louisiana were automatically placed in solitary confinement without any chance to rebut such a placement. These men spent twenty-three hours of their days, every day, in total isolation, sometimes for years.
On Oct. 28, 2021, a Louisiana judge approved a settlement for this case that will significantly improve the lives of the state’s male death row inmates. The men will receive more of the following: time to socialize and get outside; opportunities for recreation, religious worship, education, and work; the ability to speak with loved ones; and the opportunity to speak with prison representatives on a weekly basis about the conditions of death row.
Louisiana is one of six states that has recently changed its solitary confinement practices. Advocates have long argued for the abolishment or amelioration of solitary confinement in the United States. The reality of the practice has fallen far too short of its intended use as a tool to promote prison and societal security against only the most dangerous inmates. Even if just the most dangerous inmates were put in isolation, there is still overwhelming evidence of the negative “psychological,” “neurological,” and “physiological” effects the practice has on inmates.
Do not give Louisiana a round of applause just yet. This settlement will solely benefit male death row inmates in the state. There has been zero public speculation from Louisiana courts or government officials about seeking similar reform for female inmates. Unlike some jurisdictions that prohibit the solitary confinement of female death row inmates, Louisianaallows the solitary confinement of any disobedient prisoner, unless they are pregnant or caring for a child. However, even pregnant prisoners or prisoners caring for a child can be put in solitary confinement if they are violent and cause bodily injury, or if there is a reasonable belief that they will be violent and cause bodily injury. Except for this one law, we know next to nothing about the solitary confinement of female prisoners in Louisiana. The state does not report any data on this subject or on its female prisoners in general.
The limited information on female inmates in Louisiana state prisons points to the larger, nominally shrinking blind spot of the experience of female inmates in solitary confinement. There is barely any acknowledgment of the different experience female inmates have in solitary, in comparison to male inmates, especially for women of color and transgender women.
Unlike men, women are mostly convicted for nonviolent crimes. Consequently, the women put in solitary confinement are more likely to have been nonviolent offenders. Due to implicit bias and racist prison policies, of the women who do end up in solitary confinement, most are Black and Latina. According to a report published by the ACLU, transgender women, especially Black transgender women, are also disproportionately placed in solitary under the guise of “protective custody,” due to the higher levels of abuse they endure from other prisoners and correctional officers, in comparison to cis women.
In general, women are placed in solitary for reporting the correctional officers’ sexual abuse and harassment of them, and for disobeying the correctional officers in gendered, nonviolent ways. “‘[R]eckless eyeball rolling,’ ‘mouthing off,’” using bad language, and other examples of reasons women can be placed in solitary confinement demonstrate how female prisoners are expected to conform to patriarchal standards of femininity. The underlying sexist and racist motivations just described exemplify how solitary confinement of women falls short of isolating only the most dangerous inmates.
Additionally, certain factors exacerbate the effects of solitary confinement on women in ways different than men. Female prisoners have a higher likelihood of being mentally ill compared to male prisoners. The isolating conditions of solitary, in combination with the inadequacy of the correctional officers’ ability to handle mental illness, aggravate the negative effects of mental illness on female inmates. Second, women cope in prison by forming bonds with other women. Solitary confinement separates women from their prison relationships, thus removing their coping mechanism for a certain amount of time. Third, not only do women not receive adequate general healthcare or medications in solitary confinement, but they also do not receive adequate reproductive health care. Their access to disposable menstrual products, and care for "pregnancy, abortion, menopause . . . and cancer" is severely limited.
Finally, there is a very high likelihood that female prisoners have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, and poverty. Certain solitary confinement practices, such as strip searches and the use of restraints, can be “retraumatizing.”
Solitary confinement reform that solely benefits male inmates is not true reform. Furthermore, even if states were to give the same benefits of their reform efforts to their female inmates, the reform would still not be sufficient. Instead, practitioners and legislators must consider the different experiences of female inmates both before and during their incarceration, and then tailor their reform efforts to account for such differences. However, the best-case scenario would be if states abolished the practice of solitary confinement altogether.