Cruel But Usual: Solitary Confinement's Tortured History

Sep 30, 2021
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Andrea ArmstrongLoyola University New Orleans

David ShapiroNorthwestern University

John StinnefordUniversity of Florida

Free and open to the public. This event will be held online through Zoom (registration required) and live-streamed to YouTube. Presented by the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network and cosponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network.

Pope Francis has denounced the use of solitary confinement.  He describes it as “torture” employed under the “pretext of offering greater security to society or special treatment for certain categories of prisoners, its main characteristic is none other than external isolation.” The result is the degradation of the human person through the imposed “lack of sensory stimuli, the total impossibility of communication and the lack of contact with other human beings induce mental and physical suffering such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, weight loss, and significantly increase the suicidal tendency.”

Our panel of legal scholars will discuss solitary confinement in light of history and contemporary practice. Professor Andrea Armstrong, whose work was highlighted in the August 16, 2021 issue of the New Yorker, will discuss contemporary conditions of solitary confinement, including its effects on healthcare and mortality in the Louisiana prison system.  Her presentation will include art, pictures, and video of solitary cells used recently in Louisiana. Professor David Shapiro will take us back to the beginning of solitary confinement in the United States, discussing his important work on early use of solitary confinement in the Walnut Street Jail.  This groundbreaking work was published in the Harvard Law review.  Finally, Professor John Stinneford will endeavor to tie present and past together by discussing the relationship between solitary confinement and the American punishment tradition. The panelists will also discuss constitutional, statutory, and administrative approaches to solitary confinement  However, we must discuss these varied views regarding the the legality of solitary confinement in light of Pope Francis's question:  Can depriving a human being of the company of other humans ever be just?


Andrea Armstrong is the Law Visiting Committee Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans. She holds a JD from Yale Law School, MPA from Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and a BA from New York University. Professor Armstrong joined the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law faculty in 2010.  She is a leading national expert on prison and jail conditions and is certified by the U.S. Department of Justice as a Prison Rape Elimination Act auditor.  Her research focuses on the constitutional dimensions of prisons and jails, specifically prison labor practices, the intersection of race and conditions of incarceration, and public oversight of detention  facilities.  She teaches in the related fields of constitutional law, criminal procedure, law and poverty, and race and the law. Prof. Armstrong also received a three-year Interdisciplinary Research Leader grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shared with the Voice of the Experienced and LSU Center for Healthcare Value and Equity, to examine the effects of incarceration on health service use in Louisiana, currently a global and national leader in incarceration rates.

David Shapiro is Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law. He has devoted his career to fighting for racial justice and civil rights, first at the ACLU National Prison Project, and since 2012 as a MacArthur Justice Center attorney and a Northwestern Law clinical faculty member. He has spent major portions of his career as both a federal trial court lawyer and a federal appellate lawyer. In 2016, David founded the Justice Center’s Supreme Court and Appellate Program, which he directs. As reported by U.S. Law Week, the group has “won a string of civil rights and criminal justice victories.” The Supreme Court and Appellate Program, which currently consists of fourteen appellate attorneys, exists to ensure that people subjected to police brutality, indecent prison conditions, wrongful convictions, and other law enforcement abuse have the best representation possible in appellate and Supreme Court cases—cases that will help to determine the future of civil rights protections throughout the United States. David is also an accomplished scholar on civil rights, incarceration, and policing. He has published law review articles on these topics in the Harvard Law Review, the Notre Dame Law Review, and the George Washington Law Review, among many others, in addition to co-authoring a textbook on prisoners’ rights and training federal court staff on civil rights litigation through the Federal Judicial Center. David graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 2001, was a Fulbright Scholar from 2001-02, graduated from Yale Law School in 2005, and clerked for Judge Edward R. Becker on the Third Circuit.

John Stinneford is the Edward Rood Eminent Scholar Chair and Professor of Law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He researches, teaches, and consults in the areas of legal ethics, criminal law, criminal procedure, and constitutional law. His work has been cited by the United States Supreme Court, several state supreme courts and federal courts of appeal, and numerous scholars. It has been published in numerous scholarly journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, the Northwestern University Law Review, the Virginia Law Review, the Notre Dame Law Review, and the William & Mary Law Review. The Stanford-Yale Junior faculty forum selected one of his articles as the best paper in the category of Constitutional History, and the AALS Criminal Justice Section named another article as the best paper in its Junior Scholars Paper Competition. In the fall of 2015, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Georgetown Law Center, Center for the Constitution. Before joining the Florida faculty in 2009, Stinneford clerked for the Hon. James Moran of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, served as an Assistant United States Attorney, and practiced law with Winston & Strawn in Chicago. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School, an MA from Harvard University, and a BA from the University of Virginia.