Time-In-Cell: Isolation and Incarceration

Judith Resnik
Sarah Baumgartel
Johanna Kalb


What is solitary confinement, and what has been constitutional law's relationship to the practices of holding prisoners in isolation? One answer comes from Wilkinson v. Austin, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case discussing Ohio's super-maximum security ("supermax") prison, which opened in 1998 to hold more than five hundred people.

Writing for the unanimous Court in Wilkinson, Justice Kennedy detailed a painful litany of conditions.

[A]lmost every aspect of an inmate's life is controlled and monitored. Inmates must remain in their cells, which measure 7 by 14 feet, for 23 hours per day. A light remains on in the cell at all times . . . and an inmate who attempts to shield the light to sleep is subject to further discipline .... Incarceration [in supermax] is synonymous with extreme isolation. In contrast to any other Ohio prison ... [the] cells have solid metal doors with metal strips along their sides and bottoms which prevent conversation or communication with other inmates. All meals are taken alone .... Opportunities for visitation are rare .... It is fair to say [that] inmates are deprived of almost any environmental or sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact .... [P] lacement ... is for an indefinite period of time, limited only by an inmate's sentence.