Our Voices

Campaign to end solitary confinement gains national momentum

Propelled by human rights groups and grassroots organizations, the campaign to end the torture of solitary confinement is gaining national momentum.

In December, Senator Edward J. Markey introduced the End Solitary Confinement Act, historic legislation that would end solitary confinement in federal prisons, jails, and detention centers, with limited exceptions. Last summer, Congresswoman Cori Bush introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives, denouncing solitary confinement as a “moral catastrophe” and a form of psychological torture.

The bill, which is endorsed by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and more than 150 other organizations, would ban solitary confinement in federal facilities and provide additional protections for vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and those living with mental or physical illnesses. This newly proposed legislation would also require facilities to report instances of self-harm and suicide, as well as statistics on when and how solitary confinement is used. It is currently under review in committee.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the

“Nelson Mandela Rules” and adopted to prevent prevent prison torture, call for a permanent ban on solitary confinement that is longer than 15 days or inflicted on vulnerable groups like children and people with mental illness. Yet solitary confinement remains on the rise in the United States. According to a 2023 report from the United Nations, it is estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are held in isolated confinement on any given day in the U.S., with over half of those individuals held for 15 days or longer. In late 2023, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee called out the United States for violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights due to its troubling use of solitary confinement in prisons and immigration detention centers.

“Solitary confinement is mentally, emotionally, and physically devastating,” said Delia Addo-Yobo, staff attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “More than a third of those held in solitary confinement become psychotic or suicidal within the first 15 days.”

Aside from the heightened risk of suicide, solitary confinement can lead to other serious and long-term health effects, including anxiety, sleep disorders, panic attacks, and depression. Though proponents often tout the practice as a security measure, studies show that solitary confinement tends to make prisons less safe by imposing psychological pressure that can lead to increased aggression.

Partnering with groups such as End Solitary NC, the California Mandela Campaign, and Unlock the Box, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has been working to restrict or end solitary confinement at the state level as well as nationwide. RFKHR has also called for investigation into the racially discriminatory usage of solitary confinement. As Addo-Yobo explains, solitary “is particularly traumatic for Black people, who are disproportionately harmed by U.S. carceral systems.”

In 2023, as a result of RFKHR’s activism alongside Atlas of Blackness and the Legal Rights Center, the Minnesota legislature passed a bipartisan bill to prohibit placing juveniles in solitary confinement as a form of punishment. Building on that progress, RFKHR attorneys are now working with organizations from North Carolina and California to curb the use of solitary.

“Solitary confinement is an affront to the dignity of human beings,” said Anthony Enriquez, Vice President of U.S. Advocacy and Litigation at RFKHR. “While our work is far from over, the increasing political will to ban solitary confinement at the state and federal level gives hope that we can end prison torture for good.”

For more information on Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ solitary confinement work, visit our website.