Abstract: The “Prison within a Prison” As a Barrier to Freedom: The Health Impact of Racial Disparities in Solitary Confinement in Michigan Prisons (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

The “Prison within a Prison” As a Barrier to Freedom: The Health Impact of Racial Disparities in Solitary Confinement in Michigan Prisons

Sunday, January 14, 2018: 8:22 AM
Congress (ML 4) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Finn Bell, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Reuben Jonathan Miller, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Natalie Holbrook, MA, Program Director, AFSC-Michigan, Ypsilanti, MI
Peter Martel, JD, Mitigation Specialist, Michigan State Appellate Defender Office and Criminal Defense Resource Center, Detroit, MI
Qi Yang, PhD, Research Scientist, GN Resound, Glenview, IL
Background and Purpose:

In this study, we investigate racial disparities in who is held in solitary confinement and corresponding disparities in release dates in Michigan prisons, both of which have well-established health impacts.  Previous research has estimated widespread racial disparities in solitary confinement, but generally departments of corrections do not keep demographic data on prisoners in solitary confinement, making our study the first of its kind.  We ask “To what extent are there racial disparities in who experiences solitary confinement in Michigan prisons?” and “What is the impact of experiencing solitary confinement on one’s access to freedom in Michigan?”  


We used a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain administrative data from the Michigan Department of Corrections that included information about the security levels of all Michigan prisoners at four time points in 2011-2014.  Using Python code, we linked the prisoners’ information with their race, gender, age, criminal convictions, and other important variables that are available on the publicly accessibly Offender Tracking Information System (OTIS).  We employed logistic regression analyses to uncover racial disparities in experiencing solitary confinement and missing earliest release date (ERD) for parole in our newly created datasets.


We found that black prisoners had a 64% higher chance of being in solitary confinement and a 78% higher chance of being in solitary confinement for three or more of the four time points than white prisoners, controlling for all other variables.  Prisoners in solitary confinement had a three times higher chance of missing their ERD than other prisoners and black prisoners had a 17% higher chance of missing their ERD than whites, controlling for all other variables.

Conclusion and Implications:

Black prisoners have less access to freedom than whites in Michigan prisons, which exacerbates public health risks and inequities.  Black prisoners are more likely to be held in solitary confinement and held there repeatedly.  They are also more likely to miss their ERD and, thus, be held in prison longer.  Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any racial and gender group in the United States, and every year spent in prison is associated with worse health outcomes.  Our study has uncovered one mechanism that exacerbates poor health outcomes for black men.  This is important because most research on decreasing the ill effects of incarceration on black men has focused on disparities in police contact, sentencing, or parole.  While looking at these stages of the criminal justice system is important in understanding racial disparities, our research shows the importance of looking at within-prison practices.  In particular, reform to parole and sentencing practices may not have a sufficient impact on the public health outcomes of prisoners if they do not reform the use of solitary, which increases the likelihood that a prisoner will miss their ERD threefold.  Parole board reforms may be similarly ineffective given prisoners in solitary are rarely permitted to go before the parole board. Future research should examine the long-term health effects of racial disparities in the administration of solitary.