The End of Solitary Confinement for Thousands

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

California announced Tuesday it will move thousands of prisoners out of long-term solitary confinement as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement. The decision is one of the most significant victories yet for the prison-reform movement:

Instead, the state agreed to create small, high-security units that keep its most dangerous inmates in a group setting where they are entitled to many of the same privileges as other prisoners: contact visits, phone calls and educational and rehabilitation programs.

California's reliance on solitary confinement has been challenged since a panel of experts told the state corrections department the high numbers of inmates in lengthy isolation did little to improve prison security.

The state keeps about 6,400 inmates in isolation units throughout its prison system, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Long-term solitary confinement is increasingly controversial for the severe psychological toll it can impose on inmates. More than a dozen states have reformed or curtailed their policies over the past two years. High-profile critics of prolonged isolation in recent months included President Obama and Justice Anthony Kennedy.

California’s system became a focal point for the debate over the past five years amid legal challenges and prisoner hunger strikes. In our October 2014 issue, Graeme Wood reported on the extensive use of solitary at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison to control gang members. (Andrew Cohen’s critique of Pelican Bay is also worth reading.)

More on today’s ruling to come. We’ll post a link.