Breaking Through Isolation: The Urgent Case for the ERASE Solitary Confinement Act in D.C. Jails

November 16, 2023

Solitary confinement is a stark reality for many people who are incarcerated in our nation’s capital. Washington, D.C.’s Department of Corrections uses solitary confinement three times more than the national average. The United Nations has said that solitary confinement amounts to “psychological torture,” and even professional associations that represent corrections administrators have said that “prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States.”

Solitary confinement is defined by the United Nations as the “confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

Legislation being considered by the Council of the District of Columbia – the ERASE Solitary Confinement Act – would require the D.C. DOC to give most incarcerated people at least 8 hours a day, not confined to their cells and not isolated from others. The legislation includes narrow and time-limited exceptions for medical isolation and for people at risk of self harm.

The ACLU of the District of Columbia and D.C. Justice Lab, in collaboration with the Unlock the Box D.C. Coalition, present this white paper — a synthesis of personal narratives, empirical data, and recent polling results — to illustrate the dire need to end solitary confinement in D.C.’s correctional facilities. 

Recent polling data underscores this urgency, revealing that a majority of D.C. voters oppose solitary confinement. The opposition to solitary confinement is robust and spans across political and demographic lines, with a 55% majority opposing such measures. This consensus only strengthens with greater awareness: after learning more about solitary confinement, 62% oppose it, and after understanding its detrimental effects on rehabilitation and mental health, opposition soars to 70%.

This paper demonstrates the devastating effects of solitary confinement and shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by this everyday form of torture. This paper details how individuals placed in solitary experience severe psychological trauma, including depression, anxiety, and an increased likelihood of self-harm and suicidal behavior. Beyond showing that such confinement is morally indefensible, this paper demonstrates that solitary is economically imprudent and socially destructive and that this practice contributes to increased recidivism and violence within jails.

The time has come for D.C. to leave everyday torture behind and become a champion for humane treatment. The Eliminating Restrictive and Segregated Enclosures (ERASE) Solitary Confinement Act proposes such a transformative approach, curtailing the use of solitary confinement and championing rehabilitation, education, and healthcare for incarcerated individuals.

To inform the urgent need to build a more humane and effective criminal justice system, this paper offers a synthesis of rich narratives and compelling data, as well as a plan to move toward a justice system that fosters healing and integration rather than perpetuating cycles of trauma and incarceration. The ERASE Solitary Confinement Act is not just a legislative change; it is a moral imperative to address systemic injustices and to create a more equitable and effective justice system in D.C.