social death

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” 8th Amendment, US Constitution.

The Supreme Court declared in 1978, “[c]onfinement in . . . an isolation cell is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under Eighth Amendment standards”, yet the court has avoided a definitive ruling on the question. In prisons, Indefinite, long-term solitary confinement is used disproportionately against men and women of color as a form of extra-judicial punishment or in lieu of mental health care.

The most recent national data available shows that 80% of prisoners held in solitary confinement are people of color. Clearly, the all-too-common practice of locking people up in isolation for 23 hours/day for more than 10, 20, even 30 years, a SOCIAL DEATH SENTENCE, is a violation of the 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Social Death is the result of a practice in which a person is excluded, dominated or humiliated to the point of becoming dead to the rest of society – when exclusion and isolation violate the network of connections that constitute social personhood. To be socially dead is the deprivation of those relations.


Prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) are isolated for at least 22 ½ hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, any kind of programming, adequate food and, often, medical care. Nearly 750 of these men have been held under these conditions for more than a decade, dozens for over 20 years.

Ashker v. Governor of California was a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who had spent a decade or more in solitary confinement. The case charged that prolonged solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ rights to due process. The legal action was part of a larger movement to reform conditions in SHUs in California’s prisons that was sparked by hunger strikes by thousands of SHU prisoners in 2011 and 2013; the named plaintiffs in Ashker include Todd Ashker, Sitwaa Jamaa, Arturo Castellanos and several other leaders and participants from the hunger strikes.