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r j sullivan
Visual Artist
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Independent Research


 The Rise of the Use of Solitary Confinement and Other Recent Developments in US Prisons 

 (original artwork "Solitaire" by RJ Sullivan 2012)

Robert J. Sullivan

ARE6641: Contemporary Issues in Art Education

University of Florida Masters in Art Education Program

Professor Delacruz

March 2, 2012


From May, 2009 till December, 2010, I worked as an Adult Education Instructor for Daytona State College assigned to Tomoka Corrections Institution, a maximum security prison in Daytona Beach, FL. Daytona State College received state grants to provide the Adult Basic Education and GED services to TCI. As of August 2011, per new state budget cuts, those grants ended which resulted in the termination of the program. Having been an instructor in the prison system it is my hope that I may be able to shed some light on what I refer to as the “incarceration epidemic” in our country. The increase use of solitary confinement and the increase imprisonment of the elderly and woman are recent trends also discussed in this essay. It is my contention that the imprisonment of what seems to be predominately the under-educated in our society and the subsequent lack of education opportunities in the prison systems, particularly post-secondary, is causing irreparable harm to our society. At the root of this paper’s raison d’être is to try to counter any ideology or mindset that refuses to understand that withholding education from our prison populace is not only costly and dangerous to society, but is in no any way ethical, humane or just.

National Prison Incarceration Rates

According to Bureau of Justice statistician, Lauren E. Glaze, there has been a slight (1.3%) downward trend in prison population from 2009 to 2010, however, the overall incarceration rate in the last decade is up by about 10% (Glaze, 2011, p1-3). Glaze reports:

At yearend 2010, the total number of offenders under the supervision of the adult correctional authorities represented about 3.0% of adults in the U.S. resident population, or 1 in every 33 adults….At yearend 2010, about 1 in every 48 adults in the U.S. was under supervision in the community on probation or parole, compared to about 1 in every 104 adults in the custody of state or federal prisons or local jails. (Glaze, 2011, p.1,2)

Another astonishing statistic revealed in an article in the New York Times entitled,Inmate count in US dwarfs other nations (2008); “although the United States represents less than 5 percent of the world's population, it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners” (Liptalk, 2008).

Civil rights attorney and author, Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow(2010) reports that in the last 30 years (since the beginning of the War on Drugs) the prison population has increased about six fold. Bearing the brunt of this incarceration epidemic are African American men (Alexander, 2010). Alexander explains:

The US now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world….even surpassing those in highly oppressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States the rate is nearly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000…. Less than two decades after the War on Drugs in 1982, one in seven black American men nationally has lost their right to vote, and as many as one in four in those states with the highest disenfranchisement rate. (Alexander, 2010, p. 6, 175,188, 220, 224)

Alexander maintains that the incarceration of so many African American men is not really racially motivated but “vote” motivated. She contends that as a result of the eighties inner city crack cocaine explosion, combined with President Reagan officially declaring a War on Drugs, an anti-crime attitude amongst community leaders and politicians developed as a great way to get people to vote for anyone that chose to take the “tough on crime” platform. Ultra conservative politicians began getting elected in great numbers starting in the 1980s and subsequently federal money began flowing into communities to fight the drug war. The casualties of that war are the foot soldiers who, for the most part, are poorly educated and economically challenged African American men (Alexander, 2010).

Solitary Confinement

With this rise in incarceration rates comes a rise in the use of solitary confinement. Many people are unaware of this relatively new trend in American prisons (and around the world) or the inhumane lengths of time many are placed in isolation. My students at TCI told me of numerous accounts whereby they would be placed in isolation for sometimes up to two years or longer. These solitary confinement cells are sometimes as small as six by seven foot windowless rooms. What is even more macabre is the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in this country. A recent article on Solitarywatch.com, a website intended to call attention to the pervasive use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture in U.S. prisons states:

The United States, alone among industrialized nations, incarcerates thousands of juveniles in adult prisons, after trying and sentencing them as adults. We also lead the world in the practice of solitary confinement. These two facts have come together to create a horrifying reality: hundreds of children languishing in isolation cells. (Casella, Ridgeway, 2012)

In a 2009 article in the New Yorker entitled Hellhole, author Atul Gawande writes:

The criteria for the isolation of prisoners vary by state but typically include not only violent infractions but also violation of prison rules or association with gang members. The imposition of long-term isolation—which can be for months or years—is ultimately at the discretion of prison administrators. One former prisoner I spoke to, for example, recalled being put in solitary confinement for petty annoyances like refusing to get out of the shower quickly enough. (Gawande, 2009)

I would be inclined to doubt Gawande’s last statement above if I had not heard similar stories from some of my students. While I was teaching at TCI, some of my best students were placed in confinement for months on end for infractions such as using cell phones, complaining about the food, or for being suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to jump a guard or break out of prison.

It is increasingly apparent that solitary confinement is a form of torture. Gawande cites a comment by psychology professor Craig Haney whereby he affirms; ‘“Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,”’ becoming essentially catatonic” (Gawande, 2009). As is the case with prisoners of war who have been subjected to isolation, a breakdown of mental capabilities occurs that eventually have extreme negative physical affects. The ACLU, Oxford’s International Centre for Prison Studies, Mental Disability Advocacy Center, Penal Reform International, and Professor Juan Mendez the Special Rapporteur on Torture are convening March 6th, 2012 at the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva Switzerland to discuss this worldwide crisis. Solitarywatch.com reports:

Every day tens of thousands of prisoners and detainees are held in solitary confinement worldwide. Usually in isolation for at least 22 hours a day and denied all meaningful human contact, these prisoners and detainees are frequently held for months, years, and sometimes decades. They are held in conditions that the Special Rapporteur on Torture has found can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture. In a global study of the practice published last year at the General Assembly and in his statement to the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur called on all countries to ban solitary confinement except in very exceptional circumstances and for minimal time periods. This briefing will examine the detrimental impacts of solitary confinement, the research that finds it to be a human rights violation, and the disproportionate impact of its use on mentally disabled persons and youth. The briefing will also offer concrete recommendations for future action to increase protections and effective safeguards from abusive and prolonged solitary. confinement (Solitarywatch.com, 2012) 

Aging Prisoners

Another problem on the rise in American prisons is the aging prison population as well as the more frequent occurrences of incarcerating older citizens. United Prison Ministries International website (UPMI.org) reports: 

The percentage of prisoners in federal and state prisons aged 55 and older increased by 33% from 2000 to 2005 while the prison population grew by only 8%. The Southern Legislative Conference found that in 16 southern states the elderly prisoner population increased on average by 145% between 1997 and 2007. The growth in the elderly population brought along higher health care costs, most notably seen in the 10% average increase in state prison budgets from 2005 to 2006. (2012, para 24)

I was standing outside of my classroom modular one morning greeting my students as they entered the classroom when an older man in his seventies rolled up in his wheel chair. (There are scores of prisoners in wheelchairs at TCI.) He was sweating profusely as even at 8:30 in the morning Florida summers can get quite brutal. The man was affable enough considering his circumstance. I greeted him and showed him to a place in the classroom to settle in. As usual I looked him up on the TCI website later that day and noted that he had been arrested and convicted for the sale of narcotics and was sentenced to two years in prison. He later confided in me that at 73 years of age, disabled, and unable to make ends meet on a meager Social Security pension, he had resorted to occasionally selling his prescription drugs. His only other offense was a 1982 conviction for book making. He told me he lost his house and his 70 year old wife had to resort to sleeping on a friend’s couch. Also, he said his 28 year old son had “lost direction” and was “going off the rails” as he put it, distraught and feeling helpless over his elderly father’s incarceration. Again, as a result of the drug war, we are seeing more of this type of conviction and incarcerations…or elderly abuse. Many feel an ankle bracelet and some type of special surveillance for a person guilty of this type of breach would suffice, as well as be less costly to the taxpayer.

Woman in Prison

The increased imprisonment of woman is also a tragic occurrence in the last 30 years. In a study entitled The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004 (2006) are some shocking statistics:

Across the board, the growth has been dramatic. In 1977, the U.S. imprisoned 11,212 women; by 2004, that number had ballooned to 96,125, a 757% increase. In 1977, the United States imprisoned 10 women per 100,000 female residents; in 2004, the rate had grown to 64 per 100,000. (Greene & Pranis, 2006)


Why is incarceration increase occurring?

The rise in incarceration rates over the last 30 years has different root causes depending on who you talk to. Some will simply tell you that Americans have just become too disrespectful and jaded, all too willing to partake in crimes to satisfy their greedy and selfish needs. Others will tell you that overzealous prosecutors that see convictions as a career score card of sorts and judges wanting to be seen as tough on crime in order to get reelected are major contributing factors. Certainly mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws in many states implemented over the last 20 years are responsible for an increase. Greene & Pranis go on to make the following observation about the increased imprisonment of woman that can surely apply to the whole system:

In the federal criminal justice system, draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws and rigid sentencing guidelines have increased the proportion of women who receive prison sentences and the length of time women spend behind bars. The federal sentencing reforms of the mid-1980s have resulted in higher rates of incarceration of women for economic offenses, and have drastically increased the length of incarceration for drug offenses. (Greene & Pranis, 2006, p. 21)

One ominous result of the “three strikes you’re out” laws is the numbers of people that are serving life sentences who have never killed, raped or physically abused anyone. Several of my students were in that category.

Education is the Answer

There is nothing like empirical data to reinforce a claim of any kind. A study conducted by TaxWatch and the Center for Needs Assessment & Planning did a Costs-Consequences Analysis (CCA) for Florida's Workforce Development Programs that showed “that every dollar of public investment in correctional education returned $3.20” (Crispo, 1997). These cost benefits were realized as a result of less recidivism occurring by persons who received different levels and types of education while incarcerated. With hard statistics like these one has to wonder why our federal government (as a result of the 1994 Crime Bill) does not allow incarcerated individuals in state or federal prisons to receive federal grants or loans. Many of my students that had earned a GED were stymied by this law and could go no further with their formal education. “Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a New York-based non-profit group that works on prisoner reentry issues said restoring Pell grants to prisoners should be a priority as practical matter” (Abdul-Aim, 2010, para 32). Abdul-Alim also reports Jeff Mellow, professor of criminal justice at the Prisoner Reentry Initiative of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as declaring; “The research is very consistent that post-secondary education has a much greater effect on reducing recidivism among this population than getting your GED” (Abdul-Aim, 2010, para 16).


Many are convinced education, both in and out of the prison system, is the silver bullet needed for creating a less crime riddled and more creative society of people interested in sustainable and democratic living. We must understand that it is not a stretch to see that in order to have social justice prevail and to move closer to becoming a true democracy, we must recognize and callout injustices wherever and whenever they occur. As educators we must try to do what we can to steer the public’s perception down a more enlightened path. In response to me emailing him about getting pro bono attorneys to do work for the forgotten souls out at TCI, the great civil rights attorney, Gerry Spence, said it better than I could when he answered my email with the following about the prison situation;

This is a horror and one of the great disgraces of this age. We are still primordial in our thinking and understanding. We set up the conditions which cause much of our crime and then punish those we have caught in it. In ways the situation is like the slavery of old. Until the national consciousness rises to a humane level we will face these gross injustices. (G. Spence, personal communication, October 28, 2009)

I am not sure when the national consciousness will rise to a more humane level; we can only hope that it is at the very least, on the ascent.


Abdul-Ali, J. (2010). It’s time to lift the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners. Campus Progress [Website]. Retrieved from http://campusprogress.org/articles/its_time_to_lift_the_ban_on_pell_grants_for_prisoners

Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow. New York: The New Press

Casella, J. & Ridgeway (2012). New ban on solitary confinement for child prisoners in Mississippi. Solitary Watch [Website]. Retrieved from http://solitarywatch.com

Crispo, N. (1997). Return on investment for correctional education in Florida.Department of Corrections State of Florida. Retrieved from http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/taxwatch/index.html

Gawande, A. (2009). Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture? The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/30/090330fa_fact_gawande#ixzz1o0wXmiUL

Glaze, L.E. (2011). Correctional Populations in the United States, 2010. Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2237

Greene, J. & Pranis, K. (2006). Hard hit: The growth in the imprisonment of women, 1977-2004. Institute on woman and criminal justice. Retrieved from

Liptak, A. (2008). Inmate count in US dwarfs other nations. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/us/23prison.html?pagewanted=all

United Prison Ministries International. (n.d.). Prison breakdown. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://upmi.org/site/learn-2/prison-facts/prison-breakdown



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