American prisons are holding tens of thousands of inmates in solitary confinement—a practice much of the world calls a human rights violation and the United Nations considers torture. Between 41,000 and 48,000 men and women were being kept for an average of 22 hours a day, for at least a 15-day stretch, in cells about the size of a parking space, as of last summer, a report by Yale Law School says. Of that total, more than 6,000 inmates have been held in isolation for over a year, the Guardian reports. UN guidelines—called the Nelson Mandela Rules—prohibit keeping anymore in solitary for more than 15 straight days.
Although the report, assembled with the help of prison directors, considers the totals far too high, it notes that the numbers are gradually falling. The researchers' first count, in 2014, put the solitary confinement population at 80,000 to 100,000. A number of states have since limited the practice or outlawed it. "In the 1980s, people promoted solitary confinement as a way to deal with violence in prisons," said Judith Resnik of Yale Law School. "It is now seen as a problem itself that needs to be solved." Legislation also named for Mandela has been introduced in California, for example, that would add restrictions and require reporting. Placing anyone under age 26 or over 59, pregnant women, or inmates with mental or physical disabilities in solitary would be prohibited. New York enacted a similar law this year.
More than 1,000 inmates with serious mental illness are now being held in solitary in US prisons, the report says. Albert Woodfox, who died this month, spent nearly 44 years in solitary. In his memoir, Woodfox wrote that he suffered from terrifying claustrophobia and slept sitting up because of the sensation that the walls were closing in on him. "The conditions of confinement are far too severe to serve any kind of penological purpose," a psychology professor told a Senate panel in 2012, per the American Psychological Association. (Read more solitary confinement stories.)