Solitary confinement

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Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment distinguished by living in single cells with little or no meaningful contact to other inmates, strict measures to control contraband, and the use of additional security measures and equipment. It is specifically designed for disruptive inmates who are security risks to other inmates, the prison staff, or the prison itself. It is mostly employed for violations of discipline, such as murder, hostage-taking, deadly assault, and rioting. However, it is also used as a measure of protection for inmates whose safety is threatened by other inmates. It has also been called prison "'segregation' and 'restrictive housing.'"[1]

Solitary confinement has received severe criticism for having detrimental psychological effects[2] and, to some and in some cases, constituting torture.[3] According to a 2017 review study, "a robust scientific literature has established the negative psychological effects of solitary confinement", leading to "an emerging consensus among correctional as well as professional, mental health, legal, and human rights organizations to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement."[4]


The practice of solitary confinement traces its origins back to the 19th century when Quakers in Pennsylvania used this method as a substitution for public punishments. Research surrounding the possible psychological and physiological effects of solitary confinement dates back to the 1830s. When the new prison discipline of separate confinement was introduced at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829, commentators attributed the high rates of mental breakdown to the system of isolating prisoners in their cells. Charles Dickens, who visited the Philadelphia Penitentiary during his travels to America, described the "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body".[5] Prison records from the Denmark institute in 1870 to 1920 indicate that staff noticed inmates were exhibiting signs of mental illnesses while in isolation, revealing that the persistent problem has been around for decades.[6]

The first comment by the Supreme Court of the United States about solitary confinement's effect on prisoner mental status was made in 1890 (In re Medley 134 U.S. 160).[7][2] In it the court found that the use of solitary confinement produced reduced mental and physical capabilities.[2] The use of solitary confinement in prisons was first introduced to regulate unruly prisoners and keep them away from the rest of the prison society (Haney, Craig; Lynch, Mona). However, solitary confinement has been linked to several developments of mental disorders, one of which being Ganser syndrome. A man developed Ganser syndrome after being held in solitary confinement for a long-term sentence; however, that development is seen as rare and is unlikely in most cases.

The effects of solitary confinement on mental health are undeniable. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, solitary confinement can cause an array of mental disorders, as well as provoke an already existing mental disorder in a prisoner, causing more trauma and symptoms. Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment practiced worldwide, but no positive effects of the punishment have been proven (Jaapl).[citation needed]


The practice is used when a prisoner is considered dangerous to themselves or to others, is suspected of organizing or being engaged in illegal activities outside of the prison, or, as in the case of a prisoner such as a child molester or a witness, is at a high risk of being harmed by other inmates. The latter example is a form of protective custody. Solitary confinement is also the norm in supermax prisons, where prisoners who are deemed dangerous or of high risk are held. It may be hard to determine the number of people currently being held in solitary confinement because some prisons have a hard time defining it. However, it is estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 people are currently in solitary confinement within the United States.[1]

Effects and access to care[edit]

The effects of solitary confinement on juveniles can be highly detrimental to their growth. The isolation of solitary confinement can cause anguish, provoke serious mental and physical health problems, and work against rehabilitation for juveniles.[8]:77 Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.[8] Solitary confinement can worsen both short- and long-term psychological and physical problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop.[8]:22 The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch created a report that incorporated the testimony of some juvenile inmates. Many interviews described how their placement in solitary confinement exacerbated the stresses of being in jail or prison. Many spoke of harming themselves with staples, razors, even plastic eating utensils, having hallucinations, losing touch with reality, and having thoughts of or attempting suicide – all this while having very limited access to health care.[8]:29–35

Juveniles in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.[8]:3,92 The ACLU and the Human Rights Watch have made recommendations at both a State and Federal level regarding their lack of access to medical services etc.

As well as severe and damaging psychological effects, solitary confinement manifests physiologically as well. Solitary confinement has been reported to cause hypertension, headaches and migraines, profuse sweating, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Many inmates also experience extreme weight loss due to digestion complications and abdominal pain. Many of these symptoms are due to the intense anxiety and sensory deprivation. Inmates can also experience neck and back pain and muscle stiffness due to long periods of little to no physical activity. These symptoms often worsen with repeated visit to solitary confinement.[9]

By country or region[edit]


Solitary confinement is colloquially referred to in Australian English as "the Slot" or "the Pound".

United States[edit]


Solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for prisoners in Europe was largely reduced or eliminated during the twentieth century.[3]

The European Court of Human Rights has three labels for solitary confinement: complete sensory isolation, total social isolation and relative social isolation.[10]

European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or CPT, defines solitary confinement as "whenever a prisoner is ordered to be held separately from other prisoners, for example, as a result of court decision, as a disciplinary sanction imposed within the prison system, as a preventive administrative measure or for the protection of the prisoner concerned".[10]

In Italy, a person sentenced to more than one life sentence is required to serve a period of between 6 months to 3 years in solitary confinement (only during daytime).

United Kingdom[edit]

In 2004, only 40 out of 75,000 inmates held in England and Wales were placed in solitary confinement cells.[11]

In the UK, the state has a duty to "set the highest standards of care" when it limits the liberties of children.[12] Many believe, Frances Crook included, that incarceration and solitary confinement are the harshest forms of possible punishments and "should only be taken as a last resort."[12] Additionally, because children are still mentally developing, incarceration should not encourage them to commit more violent crimes.[12]

The penal system has been cited as failing to protect juveniles in custody.[12] In the UK, 29 children died in penal custody between 1990 and 2006. “Some 41% of the children in custody were officially designated as being vulnerable.”[12] This is attributed to the fact that isolation and physical restraint are being used as the first response to punish them for simple rule infractions.[12] Moreover, Frances Crook argues that these punitive policies not only violate their basic rights, but also leave the children mentally unstable and left with illnesses that are often ignored.[12] Overall, the solitary confinement of youth is considered to be counterproductive because the “restrictive environment…and intense regulation of children” aggravates them, instead of addressing the issue of rehabilitation.[12]

Solitary confinement is colloquially referred to in British English as "the block", "The Segregation Unit", or "the cooler".[13][14]


The headquarters for the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) in Plaza Venezuela, Caracas, have an underground detention facility that has been dubbed La Tumba (The Tomb). The facility is located where the underground parking for the Metro Caracas were to be located. The cells are two by three meters that have a cement bed, white walls, security cameras, no windows and barred doors, with each cell aligned next to one another so there are no interactions between prisoners.[15] Such conditions have caused prisoners to become very ill, though they are denied medical treatment.[16] Bright lights in the cells are kept on so prisoners lose their sense of time, with the only sounds heard being from the nearby Caracas Metro trains.[17][15][18] Those who visit the prisoners are subjected to strip searches by multiple SEBIN personnel.[17]

Allegations of torture in La Tumba, specifically white torture, are also common, with some prisoners attempting to commit suicide.[15][19][18] Such conditions according to NGO Justice and Process are to force prisoners to plead guilty to crimes they are accused of.[15]



According to a March 2014 article in American Journal of Public Health, “Inmates in jails and prisons attempt to harm themselves in many ways, resulting in outcomes ranging from trivial to fatal."[20] Self-harm is greatly increased amongst inmates who are in solitary confinement. Self harm was seven times higher among the inmates where seven percent of the jail population was confined in isolation. Fifty-three percent of all acts of self harm took place in jail. 'Self-harm' included, but was not limited to, cutting, banging heads, self-amputations of fingers and/or testicles. These inmates were in bare cells, and were prone to jumping off their beds head first into the floor or even biting through their veins in their wrists.[1] While some inmates are known to have psychiatric disorders prior to entering the prison, others develop mental disorders as a result of being placed in solitary confinement. A main issue within the prison system and solitary confinement is the high number of inmates who turn to self-harm.[20] Studies have shown that the longer one stays in the prison, the more at risk he or she is to self-harm.

One study has shown that “inmates ever assigned to solitary confinement were 3.2 times as likely to commit an act of self-harm per 1000 days at some time during their incarceration as those never assigned to solitary.”[20] The study has concluded that there is a direct correlation between inmates who self-harm and inmates that are punished into solitary confinement. Many of the inmates look to self-harm as a way to “avoid the rigors of solitary confinement.”[20] Mental health professionals ran a series of tests that ultimately concluded that “self-harm and potentially fatal self-harm associated with solitary confinement was higher independent of mental illness status and age group.”[20]

Physicians have concluded that for those inmates who enter the prison already diagnosed with a mental illness, the punishment of solitary confinement is extremely dangerous in that the inmates are more susceptible to exacerbating the symptoms.[21] Professional organizations, like the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), the American College of Correctional Physicians,[22] and American Psychiatric Association (APA), work to improve the mental health services, however, the systems within the prisons "remain woefully inadequate."[21] "Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis."[21] These studies suggest that a main issue with isolating prisoners who are known to have mental illnesses is that it prevents the inmates from ever possibly recovering. Instead, many "mentally ill prisoners decompensate in isolation, requiring crisis care or psychiatric hospitalization." It is also noted that if a prisoner is restrained from interacting with the individuals they wish to have contact with they exhibit similar effects.[21]

Suicide is often seen as a means to escape from solitary confinement, especially amongst those who deal with deeper mental illnesses like depression. Depression is one of the most common reasons why inmates often kill themselves.[23] Solitary confinement has been said to increase symptoms of those with mental health issues.[24]

"Prisoner mental health is becoming increasingly important," and has caught the attention of the World Health Organization, which aims to reduce the "effects of imprisonment on mental health." One study focused on the "prison environment rather than on individual factors."[25] The study tested two time periods, short-term and long-term, that evaluated the "mental state changes in response to changes in the environment or prison setting."[25] It ultimately concluded that solitary confinement was "associated with negative effects on mental health."[25] Segregation, though similar to solitary confinement, could not be proven to have lasting negative effects on inmates, although those who were segregated had worse mental health than those who were not segregated. The study also concluded that crowding had its own problems, as "increased levels of social density had negative effects on the mental health of inmates."[25]


Some sociologists argue that prisons create a unique social environment that do not allow inmates to create strong social ties outside or inside of prison life. Men are more likely to become frustrated, and therefore more mentally unstable when keeping up with family outside of prisons.[26] Extreme forms of solitary confinement and isolation can affect the larger society as a whole. The resocialization of newly released inmates who spent an unreasonable amount of time in solitary confinement and thus suffer from serious mental illnesses is a huge dilemma for society to face.[27] The effects of isolation unfortunately do not stop once the inmate has been released. After release from segregated housing, psychological effects have the ability to sabotage a prisoner's potential to successfully return to the community and adjust back to ‘normal’ life.[28] The inmates are often startled easily, and avoid crowds and public places. They seek out confined small spaces because the public areas overwhelm their sensory stimulation.[28]



In 2002, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America, chaired by John Joseph Gibbons and Nicholas Katzenbach found that: "The increasing use of high-security segregation is counter-productive, often causing violence inside facilities and contributing to recidivism after release."[29]

Solitary confinement has been traditionally used as a behavioral reform of isolating prisoners physically, emotionally and mentally in order to control and change inmate behavior. Recently arrived inmates are more likely to violate prison rules than their inmate counterparts and thus are more likely to be put in solitary confinement. Additionally, individual attributes and environmental factors combine to increase an inmate's likelihood of being put into solitary confinement.[30]


Solitary confinement is considered to be a form of psychological torture with measurable long-term physiological effects when the period of confinement is longer than a few weeks or is continued indefinitely.[3][31][32][33] According to a law review article by Elizabeth Vasiliades, America's detention system is far below the basic minimum standards for treatment of prisoners under international law and has caused an international human rights concern: "U.S. solitary confinement practices contravene international treaty law, violate established international norms, and do not represent sound foreign policy."[34]

The documented psychological effects led one judge in a 2001 suit to rule that "Solitary confinement units are virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities."[35] In fact, as of 2016, there have been thirty-five U.S. Supreme Court cases petitioning solitary confinement.[36]

In October 2011, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, told the General Assembly's third committee, which deals with social, humanitarian, and cultural affairs, that the practice could amount to torture.[37]

“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he warned.[37]

In November 2014. the United Nations Committee Against Torture noted that full isolation for 22–23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable.[38] The United Nations have also banned the use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days.[39]


Misuse of solitary confinement has been widely controversial. In immigration detention centers, reports have surfaced concerning its use against detainees in order to keep those knowledgeable about their rights away from other detainees.[40] In the prison-industrial complex itself, reports of solitary confinement as punishment in work labor prisons have also summoned much criticism.[41] One issue prison reform activists have fought against is the use of Security Housing Units (extreme forms of solitary confinement). They argue that they do not rehabilitate inmates but rather serve only to cause inmates psychological harm.[42] Further reports of placing prisoners into solitary confinement based on sexual orientation, race and religion have been an ongoing but very contentious subject in the last century.[43]

Opponents of solitary confinement hold that it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment[44] and torture[45] because the lack of human contact, and the sensory deprivation that often go with solitary confinement, can have a severe negative impact on a prisoner's mental state[46] that may lead to certain mental illnesses such as depression, permanent or semi-permanent changes to brain physiology,[33] an existential crisis,[47][48][49][50] and death.[45]

Access to healthcare[edit]

Research has shown that the routine features of prison can make huge demands on limited coping resources. After prison many ex-convicts with mental illness do not receive adequate treatment for their mental health issues, because health services turn them away. This is caused by restrictive policies or lack of resources for treating the formerly incarcerated individual.[51] In a study focusing on women and adolescent men, those who had health insurance, received mental health services, or had a job were less likely to return to jail. However, very few of the 1,000 individuals in this study received support from mental health services.[52]


Treating mentally ill patients by sentencing them into solitary confinement has captured the attention of human rights experts who conclude that "solitary confinement may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" that violates rights specifically targeting cruel, inhuman treatment.[21] Health care professionals and organizations recognize the fact that solitary confinement is not ethical, yet the segregating treatment fails to come to a halt.[21] "Experience demonstrates that prisons can operate safely and securely without putting inmates with mental illness in typical conditions of segregation."[21] Despite this and medical professionals' obligations, segregation policies have not changed because mental health clinics believe that "isolation is necessary for security reasons."[21] In fact, many believe that it is ethical for physicians to help those in confinement but that the physicians should also be trying to stop the abuse. If they cannot do so they are expected to undertake public advocacy.[53]


There have been studies that have shown no difference between inmates in solitary confinement and those in normal lockup. For example, "Effect of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners" examines a study that compared twenty prison inmates that were put into isolation to twenty inmates from general population that were used as the controls. The subjects were tested immediately before and after being put into isolation and the results showed that although there was a slight difference in subjective feelings, there were no mental or psychomotor changes.[54] "Effect of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners" argues that the negative effects of solitary have often been overemphasized and that the reason these negative findings are often reported is due to the characteristic difference between those who end up in solitary confinement and those who do not.[54]

"Reactions and Attributes of Prisoners in Solitary Confinement," analyzes multiple studies conducted at different prisons throughout the United States. There was no difference found in the stress levels between the inmates inside of solitary confinement and those in general lockup according to this study.[55] Interviews were conducted that showed that inmates had a fear of the mental effects that solitary confinement would have, but that mental harm rarely occurred.[55] There was also no significant difference between the results of the CPI Scale between the control and the experimental group according to "Reactions and Attributes of Prisoners in Solitary Confinement."[55] This article proposes the idea that some inmates have inherent characteristics that allow them to better adapt to solitary confinement while others do not, similar to the ability to adapt to any new environment.[55] Furthermore, it showed that the majority of inmates adapted to solitary confinement within a few days finding ways to pass time such as sleeping, thinking about the future, and exercising.[55] This article argues that this study gives a better representation of the effects of solitary confinement as it claims the participants are average inmates in traditional solitary confinement conditions, rather than controlled experimental conditions. The conclusions drawn from this study include the argument of consistency; that in order to prove that solitary confinement is harmful to inmates, there needs to be some sort of consistent negative result and their findings do not match this.[55]


The legality of solitary confinement has been frequently challenged over the past sixty years as conceptions surrounding the practice have changed. Much of the legal discussion concerning solitary confinement has centered on whether or not it constitutes torture or cruel and unusual punishment. While international law has generally begun to discourage solitary confinement's use in penal institutions,[56] opponents of solitary confinement have been less successful at challenging it within the United States legal system.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other UN bodies have stated that the solitary confinement (physical and social isolation of 22–24 hours per day for 1 day or more) of young people under age 18, for any duration, constitutes cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.[57]

International law[edit]

Throughout the twentieth century, the United Nations' stance on solitary confinement has become increasingly oppositional. International law has reflected this change, and UN monitoring has led to a major reduction of solitary confinement.[56]

In 1949, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Although the Declaration is non-binding, the basic human rights outlined within it have served as the foundation of customary international law.[56] The relevance of the Declaration to solitary confinement is found in Article 5, which states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."[58] Thus, if solitary confinement is believed to constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, then the country practicing solitary confinement is violating the provisions set by the UDHR.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), effective 1976, reiterates the fifth article of the UDHR; Article 7 of the ICCPR identically states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."[59] Because the ICCPR is a legally binding agreement, any nation that is signatory to the covenant would be violating international law if it practiced torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

At the time that the UDHR and ICCPR were adopted, solitary confinement was not yet believed to constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.[56] Its practice, therefore, was not believed to violate international law. This changed, however, after the UN definition of torture was outlined in detail in the 1984 Convention Against Torture (CAT); Article 1.1 of the CAT states that torture is "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person" for any reason such as obtaining information or punishment, and Article 16 of the same convention prohibits "other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Based on these provisions, many members of the UN began to believe that solitary confinement's detrimental psychological effects could, indeed, constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, if not, torture.[56] In the years following the CAT, UN representatives "have publicly decried the use of solitary confinement as a violation of the CAT and ICCPR," as well as the UDHR.[56]

In more recent years, UN representatives have strengthened their efforts to stop solitary confinement from being used worldwide.[56] The urgency with which representatives have undertaken these efforts is largely due to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Manfred Nowak and Juan Méndez.[56] Nowak and Méndez have both "repeatedly unequivocally stated that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and may amount to torture".[56] Nowak and Méndez have been especially critical of long-term or prolonged solitary confinement, which they define as lasting fifteen days or more.[56] Their authority and explicit characterization of solitary confinement as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment has led the UN to include long-term to indefinite solitary confinement in the group of practices that violate the provisions outlined in the UDHR, ICCPR, and CAT. Solitary confinement lasting for a short period of time, however, is allowed under international law when used as a last resort, though Nowak, Mendez, and many other UN representatives believe that the practice should be abolished altogether.[56]

Opposition and protests[edit]

The use of long-term solitary confinement, along with other grievances, has triggered organized resistance from prisoners and advocacy groups in the United States. Prisoners in California and elsewhere have launched hunger strikes, citing cruel and unusual uses of solitary confinement as a major reason. Hundreds of prisoners in the United States, acting through the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, have in 2012 filed a petition against solitary confinement at the United Nations. The petition alleges that solitary confinement constitutes torture and should be addressed by the international community.[60]

The 2013 California prisoner hunger strike saw approximately 29,000 prisoners protesting conditions.[61] This statewide hunger strike reaching 2/3 of California's prisons began with the organizing of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison. On 11 July 2011, prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison began a hunger strike to "protest torturous conditions in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) there..." and to advocate for procedural and policy changes like the termination of the "debriefing process" which forces prisoners "to name themselves or others as gang members as a condition of access to food or release from isolation".[62] Nearly 7,000 inmates throughout the California prison system stood in solidarity with these Pelican State Bay prisoners in 2011 by also refusing their food.[62] Also in solidarity with the 2011 Pelican Bay prisoners on strike is the Bay Area coalition of grassroots organizations known as the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. This coalition has aided the prisoners in their strike by providing a legal support force for their negotiations with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and by creating and running a media based platform to raise support and awareness for the strikers and their demands among the general public.[62]

The CDCR's failure to meet the demands of the Pelican State Bay Prison hunger strikers in 2011 resulted in the aforementioned 2013 California prisoner hunger strike. Similar to the Pelican Bay State Prison hunger strike is the organizing of January 2011 in the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary, where prisoners Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb, and Namir Abdul Mateen began a hunger strike "to protest what they call their harsh mistreatment under solitary confinement".[63] These prisoners decided to start rejecting their meals until they could be relocated from solitary confinement to death row where their treatment as prisoners would improve. Another example took place in Fall of 2010, when prisoners throughout Georgia's prison system organized a strike in opposition to violations of the US Constitution 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment for minute infractions of rules.[64] Inmates throughout the state, in facilities like Rogers State Prison and Hays State Prison engaged in a "self-imposed lockdown" to incite action from the Georgia Department of Corrections in meeting their demands.[64] Similar to other prison strikes demanding systemic change in the policing and policies of prisons like the Pelican State Bay hunger strike, this self-imposed lockdown strike has reached "across multiple facilities and across racial and factional lines".[64]

Solitary confinement has served as a site of inspiration for protest-organizing against its use in and outside of prisons and conversely, as a response tactic for prisons to react to the protest-organizing of its prisoners. In March 2014, authorities at the Northwest Detention Center in Washington relegated multiple detainees to solitary confinement units after their participation in protests for the improvement of conditions within the facility and in solidarity with activist organizing against deportation escalations outside of the facility.[65]

Organizing against the use of solitary confinement isn't limited to the work of prisoners subject to or at risk for this treatment. Community organizing outside of prisons has also occurred to shed light on the use of solitary confinement in prisons and work towards its abolition or highly refined use. Free and accessible journals like "Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research, & Education" and web-based projects like Solitary Watch and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition website also work to disseminate information about the use of solitary confinement in prisons and support actions to bring about the end of this practice in prisons.

Dr. Eisenman, an Art History professor and activist, who is involved in many "stop max" movements centered in Illinois, studies solitary confinement and explains its eventual decline.[66] Since the 1800s solitary confinement was practiced in the penitentiary systems and its implementation and popularity at various prisons grew throughout the centuries.[66] The practice of solitary confinement grew partly because of stigmatizing language used to refer to certain prisoners like 'the worst of the worst,' which became a form of "self-justifying the logic of torture".[66] Yet, as the use of solitary confinement progressed, public discourse around solitary confinement transitioned from a legitimate form of punishment to torture.[66] Because many prisoners in solitary confinement suffered severe mental and physical illnesses, Eisenman describes that by the end of the nineteenth century "prisoner isolation and sensory deprivation were widely understood to be forms of torture".[66] Therefore, human rights groups condemned the use of solitary confinement or 'supermax' systems, and national and local 'stop max' movements have initiated in America and worldwide to stop the use of solitary confinement.[66]

Alternatives and reform[edit]

Possible alternatives[edit]

Scrutiny of super-maximum security prisons and the institutionalization of solitary confinement is accompanied by suggestions for alternative methods. One alternative is to administer medical treatment for disorderly inmates who display signs of mental illness.[67] The Correction Department of New York City implemented plans to transfer mentally ill inmates to an internal facility for further help rather than solitary confinement in 2013.[67] Dora B. Schriro, correction commissioner, said that treatment would help turn a “one size fits all” policy into a program to promote success in jail and the outside world.[67] A second alternative is to deal with long-term inmates by promoting familial and social relationships through the encouragement of visitations which may help boost morale.[68] Carl Kummerlowe believes that familial counseling and support may be useful for inmates nearing the end of a long-term sentence that may otherwise exhibit signs of aggression.[68] This alternative would help inmates cope with extreme long term sentences in prisons such as those harbored in Pelican Bay.[68] A third alternative would involve regular reevaluation and accelerated transition of isolated inmates back to prison population to help curb long-term effects of solitary confinement.[68] These alternative methods suggest a more restorative justice approach to handling high-security offenders.

Recent reform[edit]

Many states such as Colorado, Mississippi, and Maine have implemented plans to reduce use of supermax prisons and solitary confinement and have begun to show signs of reform.[67] Joseph Ponte, Corrections Commissioner of Maine, cut supermax prison population by half.[67] Colorado has announced reforms to limit the use of solitary confinement in prisons following a study that showed significant levels of confinement and isolation in prisons.[67] Washington has also showed signs of decreased use of solitary confinement, low segregation of overall prison population, and emphasis on alternative methods.[67]

Solitary confinement of women[edit]

While studies have shown the effects of solitary confinement to be detrimental to all inmates, solitary confinement of women has particular consequences for women that may differ from the way it affects men. Solitary confinement rates for women in the United States are roughly comparable to those for men[69][70] and about 20% of prisoners will be in solitary confinement at some point during their prison career.

See also[edit]


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  • Birckhead, T. R. (2015). Children in isolation: The solitary confinement of youth. Wake Forest Law Review 50(1), 1-80.

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