The Yale Law Journal

Courts Cite Volume 125 Forum Essay on Solitary Confinement

Tracy Nelson
17 Oct 2017

Over the last six months, several courts have cited Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Forum piece Only Once I Thought About Suicide, 125 Yale L.J. 222 (2016). Judges writing in a variety of criminal and prisoner rights contexts cited the piece while considering the implications of solitary confinement.

Williams v. Wetzel, 848 F.3d 549 (3rd Cir. 2017) considers whether the continued housing of inmates in death row solitary confinement while awaiting resentencing is a violation of the Due Process Clause. This is an appeal of a district court decision for summary judgment on a § 1983 claim brought by two inmates whose death sentences were vacated but who were still held in solitary confinement for several years while awaiting resentencing. Judge McKee cited Betts’s piece when “describ[ing] the devastating effects of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.” Id. at 568 n.27. The court found that the “State must therefore afford these inmates procedural protections that ensure that continuing this level of deprivation is required for penological purposes, and is not reflexively imposed without individualized justification.” Id. at 574. Ultimately, the court affirmed the district court’s decision due to qualified immunity but provided “fair and clear warning” that the plaintiffs had a protected liberty interest, preventing qualified immunity from barring future claims. Id.

United States v. Lawrence, 16-CR-243, 2017 WL 2462530 (E.D.N.Y. June 6, 2017) involves the sentencing of a defendant who pled guilty to unlawful possession of ammunition. Judge Weinstein cited Betts’s piece to support the assertion that incarceration would be particularly difficult for the defendant given his history of mental health issues. The court stated that “it is likely that he will be placed in solitary confinement . . . [which] will neither provide significant specific nor general deterrence. It will harm Mr. Lawrence's mental health. It is likely to increase dangers to the community upon defendant's release.” Id. at *11 The defendant was sentenced to thirty months, eleven months below the minimum guidelines and far less than the one hundred and twenty months advocated by the government.  

United States v. Adams, 14-CR-0650, 2017 WL 3503674 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 14, 2017) considers the sentencing of a defendant for various charges related to sex trafficking. The court considers the likely prison conditions and experience for the defendant as part of this sentencing decision. Given that the defendant is a child sex offender, the court suggests that “the prison officers will probably place the defendant in solitary confinement for substantial periods of time.” Id. at *6. The court then cites Betts’s essay as “a personal account of the adverse effects of solitary confinement.” Id. After balancing the harms the defendant would face in prison against the benefits to society and the prisoner, the court sentenced the defendant to fifteen years of incarceration. Id.