The population prevalence of solitary confinement

Hannah Pullen-Blasnik, Jessica Simes, and Bruce Western
November 26, 2021

Researchers Hannah Pullen-Blasnik, Jessica T. Simes, and Bruce Western uncover distressing statistics of large racial disparities in Pennsylvania prisons that show Black men are far more likely to experience imprisonment, solitary confinement, and longer periods of solitary confinement compared to other demographic groups.

Solitary confinement is a severe form of incarceration closely associated with long-lasting psychological harm and poor post-release outcomes. Estimating the population prevalence, we find that 11% of all black men in Pennsylvania, born 1986 to 1989, were incarcerated in solitary confinement by age 32. Reflecting large racial disparities, the population prevalence is only 3.4% for Latinos and 1.4% for white men. About 9% of black men in the state cohort were held in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days, violating the United Nations standards for minimum treatment of incarcerated people. Nearly 1 in 100 black men experienced solitary for a year or longer by age 32. Racial disparities are similar for women, but rates are lower. A decomposition shows that black men’s high risk of solitary confinement stems primarily from their high imprisonment rate. Findings suggest that harsh conditions of U.S. incarceration have population-level effects on black men’s well-being.

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