October 2, 2022

Punitive Segregation in American Criminal Justice System

The emphasis on limited periods and hearing before punishment have been built into the procedure for punishment of solitary confinement. This is important when we consider whether any form of harsh imprisonment, whether of solitary confinement or of bar fetters, should not comply with natural justice and be severely limited in duration.

Punitive Segregation and its limitation

Solitary Confinement as called Punitive segregation in America, is regarded as too harsh that it is limited to no more than 8 days except with special approval of the commissioner of corrections in many American states. The average for this type of punitive incarceration is five days. Now note what the U.S District court states:

“This punishment is imposed only after a formal written notice, followed by a hearing before the disciplinary committee.”

Sostre v. Rockfeller[1]

An Afro-American citizen Sostre, brought a Civil Rights action Sostre v. Rockfeller, complaining of solitary confinement otherwise called punitive segregation. The yearlong stay in that segregation cell was bitter. The sting of the situation was ‘human isolation loss of group privileges’. On this Judge held:

“This court finds that punitive segregation under the conditions to which plaintiff was subjected at Green Haven is physically harsh, destructive of morale, dehumanizing in the sense that it is needlessly degrading, and dangerous to the maintenance of sanity when continued for more than a short period of time which should certainly not exceed 15 days.”

The decision on punitive segregation confinement in Sostre v. Rockfeller is of value since the case, as here, is one of indefinite punitive confinement. The Court held that it was so disproportionate that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment:

“The Court also holds that the totality of the circumstances to which Sostre was subjected for more than a year was cruel and unusual punishment when tested against the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of maturing society. This condemnation of segregation is the experience years ago of people going stir crazy, especially in segregation”.

The conditions which undeniably existed in punitive segregation of Green Haven this Court finds could only serve to destroy completely the spirit and undermine the sanity of the prisoner when imposed for more than fifteen days.

Subjecting a prisoner to the demonstrated risk of the loss of his sanity as punishment for any offence in prison is plainly cruel and unusual punishment as judged by present standards of decency.


[1]312 F. Suppl. 863 (1970).