Practice in Criminal Justice: Carceral Settings

Practice in Criminal Justice: Carceral Settings

This Diversity & Justice Practice resource in criminal justice focuses on the system of punishment that is part of U.S. imprisonment. Referred to as the carceral system, it involves “the comprehensive network of systems that rely, at least in part, on the exercise of state sanctioned physical, emotional, spatial, economic and political violence to preserve the interests of the state.” (See also the University of Michigan’s Carceral State Project and Michigan State University’s The Carceral State and Prison Activism.) We focus on prisoner segregation using solitary confinement. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people are being held in solitary confinement cells in our nation’s jails, prisons and immigration detention centers, many for years on end. In a practice described by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as coming “perilously close to penal tombs,” the psychological and physical suffering of the people inside these solitary cells is incalculable.

We offer a comprehensive overview of solitary confinement that ranges from hearing the voices of those who have been impacted by it, to the ethical dilemma of health and social service providers who work in the criminal justice facilities, and finally, to humane alternatives. A searchable resource database provides an extensive set of materials that can be used in a range of social work courses, including practice courses, in mental health, policy, community organizing and advocacy, social justice and human rights, and courses in criminal justice.

The resource is compiled by Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC), an organization that aims to combat the use of solitary confinement and seeks the support of social workers in its fight against this social injustice, brings this hidden practice to light.

Teaching Resources

Teaching tools include curriculum guides, readings and multi-media sources, and syllabi. Informational materials are drawn from current scholarly as well as highly credible advocacy and other sources. A detailed list of experiential pedagogical approaches  to teaching about solitary confinement, and incarceration more broadly, are included. Over 300 entries are indexed by keyword and resource type using search terms under four general categories.

  • The carceral system and prison practices and conditions
  • Mental and physical health effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates
  • Issues for social work and heath care professionals in correctional settings
  • Advocacy, legislative, and policy practice in criminal justice

The Resource Database is available in two formats, Google online spreadsheet and in an Excel spreadsheet file.


Moya Atkinson, MSW, who served as the liaison with CSWE in the creation of this resource, is co-founder and steering committee member of Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement. Now retired, she served as the Executive Director of the NASW-MD Chapter for nearly ten years (1993-2002). The descendant of human rights activists, she works fiercely and in solidarity with groups that oppose torture. Ms. Atkinson holds a master’s in social work equivalent from Queen's University in Northern Ireland, where she also did her undergraduate studies in German language and literature.

SWASC Partners and Contributors 

Sandy Bernabei, MSW, Convener, SWASC; Former President, NASW-NYC
Mary Buser, MSW, Co-founder, SWASC
Rachel Frome, MSW, Project HOME, Philadelphia; former Program Coordinator, SWASC
Mary Gamble, MSW, Former Behavioral Health Coordinator, Local Detention Center, Maryland
Gail Kadison Golden, MSW, EdD, Founding member, AntiRacist Alliance
Marquerita Johnson-Tolson, MSW, NYS Certified Peer Specialist, former MSW intern, SWASC
Barbara Kasper, MSW, Associate Professor, Social Work Department, The College at Brockport
Willow Katz, MS, End Solitary Santa Cruz County, California
Bonnie Kerness, MSW, Prison Watch Program, American Friends Service Committee
Katy Leidel, MSW, MSc, Andrus; former Mitigation Specialist, Legal Aid Society, Manhattan
Marilyn Montenegro, PhD, MSW, Founder, Prison Project, National Association of Social Work
Victor Pate, Campaign Organizer, New York Campaign Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
Mary Pelton-Cooper, PsyD, Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility
Johnny Perez, Director, U.S. Prisons Program, National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Ali Winters, DSW, Assistant Professor, Social Work Program, Tennessee State University