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Solitary Confinement and the U.S. Prison Boom

Sat, August 11, 4:30 to 6:10pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Floor: Level 100, 104B

Abstract

Few studies examine the emergence of harsh conditions of confinement during the United States prison boom. Motivated by theories of stratification, and the institutional and political conditions of the prison boom, we examine solitary confinement before and after the opening of a new high-security prison, which increased the capacity for solitary confinement. Using detailed administrative data covering thirty years of prison records from the Kansas Department of Corrections (1985–2014), we find solitary confinement is a normal event during imprisonment: 38 percent of whites and 46 percent of blacks experienced solitary confinement during their prison term. While long-term isolation was very rare in the late 1980s with few detectable group disparities, the opening of the new prison began an era of long-term isolation most heavily impacting blacks and youth. A significant portion of releases to the community now happen directly from solitary—nearly quadruple the number in earlier periods. A decomposition analysis indicates the increase in the length of stay in solitary confinement almost entirely explains the growth in the proportion of people held in solitary confinement. Our results provide new evidence of the emergence of very harsh prison conditions in the wake of the prison boom and show solitary confinement became a common prison experience in the United States.

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