Toward a Standard of Meaningful Review: Examining the Actual Protections Afforded to Prisoners in Long-Term Solitary Confinement

The unprecedented trend of lengthy incarceration in the United States has produced a disturbing byproduct: the use of long-term solitary confinement. The precise number of people held in solitary confinement is notoriously difficult to determine due to a lack of reliable recordkeeping within institutions and varied terminology among states, but experts believe that tens of thousands of people are held in “restricted housing.” Of those people, many reside long-term in so-called segregation—a practice that removes an inmate from the general prison population to a segregated housing unit and is justified as an administrative measure to maintain safety for inmates and prison officers alike. Segregation placement severely restricts an inmate’s contact with other people and with the outside world.

In light of these extreme conditions and the great impact they can have on a prisoner’s confinement experience, the procedures regarding placement that are afforded to prisoners placed in segregated housing are of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s longstanding tradition of deferring to prison officials has limited the procedural protections prisoners can demand under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By emphasizing that the procedural guarantee of due process is flexible, the Court has sanctioned segregation decisions as long as the placement involves some form of “meaningful review.” The Court has refrained from defining the requisite process or investigating how a prison’s stated procedures actually function on an individual inmate level, however, rendering meaningful review meaningless.

This Comment considers the actual procedural due process protections afforded to prisoners placed in segregated housing for nondisciplinary reasons. Part I examines the procedural protections afforded to inmates generally and prisoners placed in administrative segregation in particular. In addition, Part I explores the doctrinal limitations on due process challenges relating to administrative segregation. Part II chronicles recent developments in inmate litigation, in which litigants have alleged due process violations despite these limitations. Part II also evaluates the state of the doctrine through an analysis of recent litigation strategies, highlighting Ashker v. Brown as a model. Finally, Part III recommends changes to the Court’s approach to administrative segregation due process challenges.

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