The 8th amendment to the US constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment for criminals. The subject is news as the Supreme Court considers whether it’s cruel and unusual to sentence minors—in the present case a homicidal 14-year-old—to life in prison.
Solitary confinement is another incarceration method whose detractors say merits the cruel and unusual designation. Solitary usually entails locking a prisoner alone in a small space for 23 hours a day—a shower and some exercise being the privileges of the free hour. (A notable example is the military document leaker Bradley Manning, who was reportedly held in solitary confinement for eleven months, though he is not considered violent.) While there are reasonable arguments equating this with torture, and while it may rise to the level of cruel, solitary confinement can’t possibly meet the other criteria of the law. It’s not unusual. According to the United Nations there are 25,000 US prisoners in solitary confinement right now.