The Hidden Damage of Solitary Confinement

Looking for the perfect punishment and strategy has been a long drawn out debate amongst individuals within the United States; one of those punishments being Solitary Confinement. For more than 200 years, Solitary Confinement has been utilized in the United States criminal justice system. Solitary Confinement has been used in the United States correctional institutions as a method to both detain and control those offenders. Solitary confinement is a term that is used to describe a form of isolation where individuals are held in isolation.

These people are generally held in a small prison or jail cell or approximately 23 hours per day, and have limited contact with other people, along with having limited physical amenities and other treatment services. Offenders that are considered to be general population are considered to have greater access to the amenities and general privileges. The use of Solitary Confinement is partly used with the mindset of being a punishment and or retribution; however, Solitary Confinement has been seen to also be used to meet the various goals of rehabilitation, incarceration, and as a deterrent.

In theory, there is a belief amongst members of law enforcement and policy makers that solitary confinement is a successful approach in order to maintain order, promote control, to discipline, and to maintain safety (Shalev, 2008). However, there is also the belief amongst the same individuals that solitary promotes the likelihood of successive institutional misconduct, makes correctional facilities less safe, and causes mental health issues amongst offenders (King, 2019). Despite the fact that solitary confinement has been a method that is widely used amongst the United States criminal justice system, it has remained an intangible topic amongst corrections.

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It is of critical importance to determine is solitary confinement is an effective strategy amongst correctional institutions to deter crime, and make institutions safer.

Solitary Confinement

In the early 1700’s, various religious groups began to utilize solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitation (Smith, 2006). It was viewed that by isolating offenders into a cell that was similar to the size of an elevator with a bible then they would be rehabilitated. As time moved forward other institutions began to adopt the idea of solitary confinement to include the Walnut Street Jail and the Eastern State Penitentiary. However, in the 1900’s the use of solitary confinement began to deteriorate because it was seen as being unethical.

In the late 1900’s solitary confinement began to resurface across the United States correctional system. Researchers relate the resurfacing of solitary confinement to “tough on crime policies (Smith, 2006).” These various tough on crime policies led to African Americans being disproportionately incarcerated; with mass imprisonment being a result, law enforcement officials sought ways to maintain order and maintain safety. During this time, it was also believed that rehabilitation does not work. Despite these notions, most research conduct amongst researchers has come to similar conclusions, that there can be psychological consequences resulting from solitary confinement (Metzner & Fellner, 2010).


Across the United States correctional institutions that are designated to isolate offenders are commonly utilized. These areas are commonly referred to as Maximum security housing (MHU) or secure security housing/ super maximum security housing (SHU). At the creation of the correctional system, both the Auburn system and Pennsylvania system was adopted (Barnes, 1921). The Auburn system is designed around a congregate system where offender was together for various activates such as work and eating; however, these offenders went to isolation at night. Floggings were used as the primary way to discipline (Barnes, 1921). The Pennsylvania system however, was centered on offenders being isolated to focus and reflect on the crime that they committed. Within confinement, offenders have very limited human contact and social interaction; however, isolation has been viewed as a rehabilitation method and an opportunity for law enforcement to control and monitor offenders. Conversely, researchers suggest that limited environmental and contact can have great potential risks such as mental deterioration (Grassian, 2006).

While some individuals believe that solitary confinement is necessary within the United States criminal justice system, because it may serve as a deterrent, maintains control, and maintains safety within the correctional institution (Shalev, 2008). However, other individuals see solitary confinement as both cruel and unusual punishment. There are also those individuals who continue to see solitary confinement as a way to provide “just deserts” or an increased punishment. Cullen and Johnson (2017) refer to just deserts as··.

Shalev (2008) describes four particular groups that are commonly placed in solitary confinement and for that is favored by the public. The first group is the offenders that do heinous crimes such as child sexual offenses; placing these offenders into solitary confinement reduced the fear of those offenders being attacked or possibly killed by other offenders in solitary confinement. The second group is those that may have been prior law enforcement; placing these offenders into solitary confinement for their own protection. The third group is those offenders that are considered to be too dangerous to be in general population with other inmates such as gang members. These offenders are placed in solitary confinement not so much for their protection but to also reduce violence towards other offenders. Lastly, the fourth group that is commonly referred to solitary confinement is those that are mentally ill. The United States correctional system is commonly known to have a lack of resources and health care for those that suffer from a mental illness; therefore, they should not be housed with other offenders.

The following groups that are commonly housed in solitary confinement portrays that solitary confinement is in fact maintaining order and reducing violence and/or disruption amongst the prison population. However, other research supports that solitary confinement produces psychological effects of offenders and/or worsens mental illnesses amongst individuals that enter the institution with a diagnosed mental illness (Grassian, 2006). Psychological factors have been related to limited social interaction, inadequate natural lighting, limited access to personal belongings, and limited interaction to family and/or friends (Arrigo & Bullock, 2007). Ultimately solitary confinement can lead to offenders having social withdrawal (Haney, 1993). Haney (2006) suggested that those offenders who have to serve long sentences within solitary confinement will naturally begin developing symptoms of mental illness such as suicidal tendencies, psychosis, and self-mutilation, along with having an increase in violent behaviors.

It is very important to understand the significance of solitary confinement because various studies show that the use of solitary confinement throughout the United States does not work (Morgan, 2018). There has been discussion that solitary confinement in fact may lead to more problems within the prison population, as well as the communities that the incarcerated individual will return to.

Through the use of research, there has been little evidence to show that solitary confinement ensures safety amongst the prison population. For example, within the state of Colorado they have reduced there use of solitary confinement by up to 85 percent (Bennett et al., 2019) and assaults form offender to staff have been at their lowest since 2006. In order to achieve this, the state of Colorado reduced their criteria in order for an offender to be sent to solitary confinement, and if an individual was sent to solitary confinement, their time was reduced. Colorado also included a program that allowed those offenders that showed improved behavior to be able to return general population. Other states have also used alternative strategies to reduce their use of solitary confinement to include Illinois, Maine, Washington, and New Mexico (Bennett et al., 2019).

Various studies have also shown that those individuals that do time in solitary confinement are more likely to commit crimes once returning to their communities’ verses those who spend their entire time in general population (Morgan, 2018). The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas Civil Rights Project conducted a study in 2015 where they reported that those individuals released from solitary confinement were more likely to be arrested than other offenders (Bennett et al., 2019). In 2006, of all the offenders whom were released for prisons in Texas, 48.8 percent were rearrested within three years of their release. 60.8% of those that served time in solitary confinement were rearrested within three years of their release. A similar study was conducted in 2007 within the state of Washington where they found that higher felony recidivism rates were amongst those offenders who were directly released from a SHU compared to those within general population (Bennett et al., 2019). Lastly, various researches have suggested that the use of solitary confinement does not only increase recidivism amongst offenders, but it may also lead to an increase in violent crime. A study conducted in Florida in 2009, showed that supermax or solitary confinement incarceration may increase violent recidivism (Morgan, 2018).

Lastly, solitary confinement is of great concern because it wastes money. Solitary confinement has been shown to be more expensive than housing offenders within general population. Prisons spend more money on solitary confinement due to the construction and operation of single-cell units, improved security technology, and additional correctional staff in order to handle the offenders. In 2013, it was shown that to house an individual in solitary confinement it cost approximately $216; however, to house an individual in general population it cost approximately $85 (Ahalt et al., 2017). Those states that have reduced solitary confinement have been able to see financial benefits. The state of Mississippi changed their criteria to send individuals to solitary confinement, thus reducing the population housed in solitary confinement. In one of their institutions the state of Mississippi was able to close a unit that once held up to 1,000 individuals. Therefore, they were able to save $8 million a year.

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The Hidden Damage of Solitary Confinement. (2019, Dec 01). Retrieved from

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