Solitary Confinement in the Young Republic

Harvard Law Review (2019)

Full Citation

Solitary Confinement in the Young Republic


David M. Shapiro


Harvard Law Review


America’s first system for punishing criminals with solitary confinement began at the Walnut Street Jail, an institution that stood right behind Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Historical and archival evidence from that facility demonstrates that the unchecked use of solitary confinement in today’s correctional facilities contravenes norms that prevailed in the Constitution’s founding era. In the 1790s, a robust array of checks and balances cabined the discretion of corrections officials to isolate prisoners. Judges, legislatures, and high public officials regulated human isolation at the jail, leaving prison administrators relatively little power over solitary confinement. Most importantly, long periods of seclusion could be imposed only by courts acting pursuant to criminal sentencing statutes. Jail officials had the power to impose solitary confinement for disciplinary violations, but only for a matter of days or weeks. Today, however, deference to prison officials has swallowed these constraints. In the present regime, some prisoners remain isolated for years and decades based on decisions by prison officials that courts hesitate to second-guess. The historical record casts doubt upon any originalist argument that the founding generation would have embraced the contemporary regime of judicial deference in matters of human isolation.