At the same time, figures for white inmates were largely inverse, with 36 of the 43 jurisdictions reporting that whites were underrepresented in solitary. (Women prisoners also undergo solitary confinement, though not as frequently as their male counterparts; this article focuses on the men’s data.)
The numbers look slightly different at the state level. In some states, the racial makeup of prisons and their solitary-confinement populations appeared more balanced—like in Kentucky, where white prisoners made up 70 percent of both the general and restricted-housing populations. Black prisoners represented 28 percent of those imprisoned and 27 percent of those in solitary. The dynamic is similar in the District of Columbia, with whites representing 2 percent of both the general and solitary-confinement populations, and blacks representing 90 percent and 94 percent of those groups, respectively.
By and large, similarly aligned figures can be found throughout the country. But in some states, the racial disproportions are startling.
For example, in a handful of states where Latinos represent a large swath of the overall population, the racial disparities are significant. In California, Latinos made up 42 percent of the general prison population, but 86 percent of those in solitary confinement. Whites, by contrast, were 22 percent of the general population, but only nine percent of those in solitary. And in Texas, Latinos made up 50 percent of those in solitary, but only 34 percent of the overall prison population. Yet again, whites’ figures were lower: They represented 32 percent of the general prison population, but 25 percent of the population in solitary confinement. Mississippi, too, had dissimilar numbers among the racial groups.
The Yale study found that in almost all responding jurisdictions, the percentage of white inmates subjected to solitary was disproportionate to their slice of the general population.
“A question that is raised by the data and not answered by the data is: Why are people being put in, [and] how constant across—even within a jurisdiction—are the sanctions?” Resnik said. “Are you worried that the general social mechanisms that over-incarcerate people of color or that over-discipline young boys are going to be at work in prison? The answer from our data is yes, you should worry, now go and find out more.”
Examining the racial disparities between prisoners and guards can provide insight into why there are disparities in punishment, including the use of solitary.
The influence of race on prison staff’s decision-making is the subject of a paper by Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, titled “Race, Prison Discipline, and the Law.” Her conclusions on race include:
First, minority offenders may be more likely to be perceived as a disciplinary threat by correctional officers, regardless of an offender’s actual behavior. For example, a correctional officer may be more likely to perceive contraband in a black offender’s hand than in a white offender’s hand. A prison guard may also decide more quickly that a black offender is a threat as compared to a white offender, leading perhaps to increased citations for black offenders. It is also possible that the threat is exaggerated for minority offenders, and therefore, minority inmates may face more serious conduct reports than their fellow white inmates for the same type of behavior.
New York is among those states with a significant racial imbalance between staff and prisoners. According to The Times Union, 85 percent of the state’s 30,000-strong corrections staff is white, but the majority of prisoners are people of color. Twenty-five percent of the state’s 56,000 prisoners are Latino, though only 3 percent of the staff belong to that group; and while only 11 percent of the staff is black, half of the state’s inmates identify as such. And there are significant differences in the rates of solitary confinement among blacks, whites, and Latinos in New York, The New York Times recently reported in an in-depth investigation. Blacks and Latinos were sent to solitary confinement more often and for longer intervals. “At Clinton [prison] … black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites,” the article said.