The Link Between Race and Solitary Confinement

Men of color are overrepresented in isolation, while whites are typically underrepresented.

A guard removes handcuffs after placing an inmate in a cell. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

Stark disparities in prisoners’ treatment are embedded into criminal-justice systems at the city, county, state, and federal levels, and have disproportionate, negative effects on men of color. A new analysis from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School provides a fresh trove of information with which to explore the racial dynamics in state and federal prisons—specifically through their findings on solitary confinement.

“People of color are overrepresented in solitary confinement compared to the general prison population,” said Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School and one of the study’s authors. “In theory, if race wasn’t a variable, you wouldn’t see that kind of variation. You worry. It gives you a cause to worry.”

The basis for the data is a 2015 survey on the use of solitary confinement in 48 jurisdictions, which represent about 96 percent of all prisoners: 45 states, the District of Columbia, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Virgin Islands. Of those 48, 43 of them—representing 54,000 inmates—provided the surveyors with details on race.

The study concluded that, overall, black male prisoners made up 40 percent of the total prison population in those 43 jurisdictions, but constituted 45 percent of the “restricted housing population,” another way to describe those in solitary confinement. In 31 of the 43, the percentage of black men who spent time in solitary wasn’t proportional to their slice of the general population—it was greater. Latinos were also disproportionately represented in solitary: On the whole, 21 percent of inmates in confinement were Latino, even though this group constituted only 20 percent of the total population. Overall, in 22 of the 43 jurisdictions, Latinos were overrepresented in relation to their general-population numbers.

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.

Unclear disciplinary standards may also contribute to prisoners receiving disparate punishment, Armstrong’s paper argues, because the rules are left up to individual guards’ interpretation. “Ambiguous disciplinary rules, particularly those regulating an inmate’s attitude, are especially susceptible to the influence by an individual prison guard’s implicit racial preferences,” she wrote. In these instances, race—or the perception of an individual’s race—could significantly affect a guard’s response to a prisoner. Armstrong continued:

White and black inmates may experience differential treatment (being cited or disciplined) for “insolence,” even when acting identically, since a prison guard may be more likely to perceive anger from a black inmate than a white inmate. … [S]ocial cognition studies demonstrate that we perceive “attitudes” differently depending on our racial preferences.

Armstrong, though, differentiates between overt racism—with “intentional” or “explicit racial stereotypes influencing disciplinary decisions”—and implicit bias. “Implicit racial bias is where it may be unintentional, it may be unconscious, but, nevertheless, the way that we view others is viewed through this lens of stereotype and bias,” Armstrong told me in an interview, noting that bias can exist both within and between racial groups. “The way that we perceive each other is tinged by race. Whether someone who is detained is exhibiting anger or insubordination is tinged by our stereotypes about that racial group.”

And “it’s not just that there may be an internalized bias that may view a minority-group member as more likely to be criminal,” Armstrong continued. “It’s that we also see majority-group members as more likely to be innocent, and that is just as problematic.” That’s because implicit bias “distorts an individual level of culpability through viewing it through the lens of race.”

Both Resnik and Armstrong agree that there’s no one answer or solution to this complicated state of affairs. But standardizing ways to determine the appropriate punishment and use of solitary confinement could be a start. Advocates may take that suggestion further and push for addressing racial disparities by ending the use of confinement altogether. The existing race-based disparities in the use of restricted housing impact everyone in a prison’s ecosystem. “It’s a problem for everybody, and the way to fix the problem, and fix the problem for sub-populations, is to end practices that deprive people of sensory stimuli no matter who they are,” Resnik said.