Solitary: The Inside Story Of Supermax Isolation And How We Can Abolish It

Author: Terry Kupers
Publisher: Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017. 291p.
Reviewer: Keramet Reiter | January 2018

Terry Kupers’ Solitary represents both a robust intellectual contribution to analyses of modern solitary confinement use and a powerful piece of advocacy advocating for abolition of the practice – a rare feat in an academic work. Kupers, a practicing psychiatrist, has worked for decades as a forensic psychiatric expert in prison conditions cases across the United States, and this practical background shapes both his analysis and his writing style. At many points, Solitary reads like a gripping expert report – documenting constitutionally inadequate conditions of mental health treatment and arguing for improvements.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section describes both the prison conditions and cultures that define solitary confinement, including a focus on a culture of racism. The second section catalogues and analyzes the kinds of damage wrought by years in solitary confinement, including damage to psychological well-being and practical life skills and long-term social functioning, as well as damage to particularly vulnerable populations, like women, juveniles, and the mentally ill. The final part argues for the viability and urgency of alternatives to solitary confinement. The major contributions of the book, however, are not especially tied to this three-part organization, but rather are woven throughout the descriptive, analytic, and normative claims.

Kupers’ first major contribution is that he provides a comprehensive cataloguing of the overwhelming consistency of the negative experiences of prisoners in solitary confinement. He notes that he has conducted “over a thousand interviews with prisoners in a variety of correctional settings” (96) and has visited jails and prisons across the United States, from California to Colorado to Illinois to Wisconsin to Massachusetts to New York, to name just a few states where he has done expert work. The sheer depth and breadth of Kupers’ knowledge is astonishing. Even for a fellow expert who has studied and written about solitary confinement for almost two decades, Kupers’ book is full of new stories and important historical details – from descriptions of early proto-types of supermaxes in Marion, Illinois (a federal penitentiary) and Deer Lodge, Montana (a state facility) (25-26) to insider details from lawsuits. For instance, Kupers describes the novel “boxcar doors” and chambers sealing pairs of cells off from access even to prison hallways in the Supermax Correctional Institution in Boscobel, Wisconsin, which he saw firsthand when he worked as an expert in the Jones ‘El v. Berge (2001) case challenging conditions of confinement (27), and he describes the long history of using strip searches and x-ray machines to “humiliate and intimidate visitors” to California prisons, which he witnessed firsthand when he worked as an expert in the Salazar v. McCarthy (1986) litigation (183).

Based on this wealth of knowledge, Kupers concludes that prisoners in solitary confinement, over time, begin “to feel unreal and nonhuman,” experiencing a constellation of symptoms that amount to a “decimation of life skills” (87, 96). Kupers’ arguments to this effect provide an important counterpoint to a smaller, less robust body of research, which has argued for the limited evidence of the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners’ psychological and overall well-being, based on smaller sample sizes and shorter time frames than those Kupers draws upon (e.g., O’Keefe et al. 2011).

Kupers’ second major contribution is to vividly capture and illustrate the futility of imposing ever more restrictions and punishments on prisoners, as solitary confinement does. He traces this tendency to impose ever-more-restrictive conditions of confinement all the way back to the first penitentiaries in the early nineteenth century United States: “additional punishments, even more severe punishments and restrictions had to be devised to prevent … other infractions … abuses, flogging, ice water, baths, restraint positions … proliferated” (22). And Kupers notes that, even in modern supermaxes, where prisoners in barren, windowless concrete cells have few privileges left to take away, “prison staff have been very innovative and often extremely cruel in inventing new and ever more complicated punishments” (43). For instance, he describes how, after he testified that seriously mentally ill prisoners should not be shot with tasers, he learned that California prison officials had replaced tasers with riot guns (which “fire blocks of wood or hard rubber”). After he then testified that mentally ill prisoners should not be shot in close quarters with riot guns, he “fully expected that some new and even more abusive and bizarre use of force would be written into” prison policy. Indeed, he soon learned of riot guns being replaced with “immobilizing gas” like O.C. or pepper spray (47). In sum, at the individual level, when punishments fail to beget compliance with restrictive rules in solitary confinement, prisoners face ever more restrictive rules and ever harsher punishments.

At the institutional level, the author describes how “the failure of the treatment is turned into a disciplinary problem,” thereby rendering treatment failures decreasingly visible (117). In other words, mentally ill prisoners, who do not receive treatment in prison, have trouble obeying prison rules, and so they get sent to isolation. In isolation, these prisoners have even more trouble obeying even more restrictive rules (108). By treating mental illness as a disciplinary problem, however, prison officials obscure institutional failures to provide healthcare. I have argued elsewhere that something even more perverse happens in this institutional cycle of systemic treatment failures being managed as escalating disciplinary problems: the very existence of the undisciplined prisoner (whether mentally ill or behaviorally incorrigible) not only hides treatment failures but makes solitary confinement seem even more necessary to everyday prison institutional operations (Reiter and Blair 2015).

Kupers’ third major contribution is to re-focus the conversations about solitary confinement reform on rehabilitation. Although rehabilitation is often an abstract and imprecise concept, he fleshes out the practical implications of his focus on rehabilitation through specific recommendations and vivid illustrations. As with his discussion of the futility of isolation practices, Kupers recommends operationalizing rehabilitation at both an individual and an institutional level. At the individual level, he talks about rehabilitation in terms of mutual respect and the importance of leaving room for prisoners to exercise individual agency. He illustrates the idea of respect with a story about a Washington Department of Corrections supermax unit manager who implemented a policy of asking prison staff to refer to prisoners as Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith (and, likewise, asked prisoners to refer to prison staff as Officer Jones and Officer Smith), refraining from swearing at prisoners, and generally treating prisoners with dignity and respect in day-to-day interactions. With these policies, this unit manager achieved a drastic reduction in violent interactions, especially cell extractions, between prisoners and staff on his unit (171). Kupers also emphasized the importance of granting prisoners “incremental improvements in their situation” when they meet behavioral benchmarks, which correctional staff should encourage them to do (178). At the institutional level, he recommends investing in a much more robust system of mental health care in, but especially out of and as an alternative to solitary confinement.

In all, this book is thoughtful, compassionate, and hopeful. My biggest critique is that the author’s hope may well be unwarranted. While re-focusing on rehabilitation, treating prisoners with respect, facilitating the development of prisoners’ agency, and investing in mental healthcare are all logical recommendations to improve individual well-being and institutional functioning, they are goals that prison systems have repeatedly failed to achieve over the last two centuries (e.g., Martinson 1974; Goodman, Page, and Phelps 2017). Indeed, Kupers’ own work, testifying in hundreds of cases (often multiple times, as he describes), suggests that his recommendations have been difficult to implement systematically and sustainably. And I have argued elsewhere that solitary confinement has been especially resistant to reform, over time and across disparate cultures (Reiter 2018).

One piece of the reform puzzle that perhaps deserves more attention is the power of prison officials to enact reform from within institutions, and the concomitant need to achieve their investment in any effort to reform – or even, as Kupers advocates, to abolish solitary confinement. Although he devotes attention to the power of prison officials, he does not systematically analyze their influence. For instance, he includes some anecdotal critiques of prison officials, describing some as “spiteful” (40) and “innovative” in their extreme cruelty (43). His criticisms are well-founded in the evidence he presents from interviews and investigations, and he acknowledges the need to better train prison staff to avoid hostility and abuse (187-88). But more than training will be required to break the institutional infrastructure that pits underpaid, under-resourced, under-trained prison staff against prisoners who are some combination of mentally ill, violent, and dangerous. Kupers acknowledges this, too, describing the importance of visionary leadership in reform, like the unit manager he describes in Washington state, who cultivated a culture of respect on a solitary confinement unit, or the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Rick Raemich, whose efforts to drastically “downsize the supermax from a population of 7 percent … to 1 percent” Kupers details (231). Further analysis is needed to understand more systematically not just the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners, but its impact on prison officials, and the ways this impact might be mitigated, and officials might be more systematically integrated into reform efforts.


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Martinson, R (1974). “What Works: Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.”

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Reiter, K. and T. Blair (2015). “Punishing Mental Illness: Trans-Institutionalization and Solitary

Confinement in the United States.” In Extreme Punishment, K. Reiter and A. Koenig, eds. Palgrave MacMillan: 177–96.

Keramet Reiter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law & Society and at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine and the author of 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement (Yale University Press, 2016).

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