Solitary Confinement

Administrative segregation–solitary confinement–in Wisconsin prisons and the Dane County jail are issues today. Extended periods of solitary confinement (defined as 15 days or more) is considered torture by many human rights conventions, as is any time in solitary confinement for a mentally ill person. US prisons and jails routine use long periods of  “administrative segregation” both as a form of control, as punishment for offenses,  and as a way of managing mentally ill prisoners, for whom they lack adequate treatment facilities. (Estimates are that upwards of 50% of all prisoners have mental illness issues. See here and here and here. And a discussion of the issue here ) Update: news about the hunger strike from WisconsinWatch as of June 25 includes force feeding.

As of June 15, at least 7 prisoners in Wisconsin’s Waupun prison are engaged in a “food refusal” action. Among their demands are release back into the general population everyone who has been in solitary confinement for more than a year and proper mental health services for those who have been in solitary confinement. Coverage of this issue by (the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism) is here. Members of the public were asked to take actions in support. WISDOM urged fasting, prayer, and contact with the DOC, state legislators, and/or the prisoners. A news article about a protest on June 11 is here.

Rita Hindin (, a relatively new Madison resident, has adopted solitary confinement in the Dane County jail as her issue of special concern, and is looking for other people who are interested in working with her on the issue. Contact her if you would like to get involved. Working with figures released by the Dane County Sheriff to the committee on mental health issues in the jail that met last summer that include a one-day snapshot for 7/7/2015 and a report on those held at any point in June 2015, she reports:

  • On July 7, 2015, about 8.4% (64  ~760) of the people held in the Dane County Jail were in solitary confinement; this rate is about 3 times the national average of 2.7%.
  • Of those in solitary confinement on July 7, 59% were Black  versus 48% Black in the general jail population; among those in solitary at any time in June 2015, 72% were Black. (About 5% of Dane County’s population is Black.)
  • 18 of the 71 times someone was placed in solitary in June (25% of the time) it was a repeat for that person.
  • 25% of the times someone was placed in solitary in June 2015, it was because the person “seems . . . or is alleged to have” serious mental illness.
  • Extrapolating from these two limited reports, an estimate of the proportion of jail inmates who spend at least some time in solitary is 18% or about 2500 people a year.
  • Of the 71 stays in solitary in June 2015, 75% for 0-6 days, 11% 6-10 days, 10% 11-20 days, 4% 21 or more days. Of the 10 people held in solitary more than 10 days, 5 were for mental health reasons. It should be noted that the jail report states that the ONLY facilities in the jail available for people with mental health issues are solitary cells.

The only reasonable way to deal with this situation is to send fewer people to jail and prison overall, and especially to create appropriate treatment facilities for mentally ill people  instead of sending them to jail or prison.

References and notes

  1. General info about the Dane County jail
    2. p.5
    3. The recently released report “Dane County Jail and Sheriff’s Office  Part I – Health and Life Safety Assessment of City/County Building Jail” ( prepared by Mead & Hunt et al. at the cost of over $1,000,000 does not directly address the issues reported on in this essay although their material is supportive of its inferences.  (Note that Mead & Hunt state that the terminology “restrictive housing’ and “segregation” describe the jail facilities’ harsher spaces more accurately than the common term “solitary confinement” although they themselves are not consistent in their usage.  For example Section IIc. p.6: “Recent Changes in Jail Restrictive Housing Policies and Practices 1.  NYC Department of Correction.  NYC’s Department of Corrections recently eliminated the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds on Riker’s Island and plans to eliminate the use of restrictive housing for all inmates 21 years of age and younger.”  The information available strongly indicates that Dane County Jail’s “harsher spaces” match the definition of solitary confinement.
    4. Snapshot of solitary on July 7 2015
    5. Solitary for June 2015
    6.   Final Jail Study p.6
    7. Derivation of the estimates of annual use of solitary confinement relies on the report that stated that 53 people were held in solitary during June, 2015 at one of the three solitary confinement locations within the jail. It relates that number to the 7/7/15 snapshot report that stated that 16 people were held in solitary that day at that location, 14 people were held in another location and 34 in the third.  Solving for “x” and “y” in the following ratios 16:53 = 14:x and 16:53 =34:y yields 46 and 113.  53 +46+113 =212 people held in solitary at least once over the course of a month; 212 *12 = 2,544 people held in solitary at least once over the course of a year.  The website, p.17, provides the figure of about 13,900 bookings/year into the Dane County Jail.  2,544/13,900 = 18.2%.  (But note: A person released from jail and re-incarcerated during the year is counted again.)
    8. provides the rate for jails nationally–“up to 2.7%;” provides the size of the national jail population.
  2. General info about conditions of confinement and the problem of solitary confinment
    1.  p.9
    2. Interim report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council: Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, August, 2011
    3., p.2
    4. indicates this as one of the circumstances on account of which jail staff may transfer an incarcerated person to solitary confinement.
    5., p.2
    6. , pp.23-24.
    7. Updated report published January 2017 by ACLU regarding solitary confinement of people with physical disabilities.


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