Sometimes referred to as administrative segregation (or “ad-seg”), restricted housing or isolation, long-term solitary confinement is a penal system practice in which a prisoner is cut off from almost all human communication for an extended period of time. Historically, its usage in the United States began in the 19th century but had fallen out of use around 100 years later. While many sociologists, criminal justice professionals, lawmakers and prison reform advocates challenge the benefits of solitary confinement, others argue that it is necessary for some high-profile and dangerous criminals. Solitary confinement pros and cons have been strenuously debated in the U.S. since its resurgence in the latter part of the 20th century.
Usage of Solitary Confinement in the U.S.
The first experimental use of solitary confinement in the U.S. took place in the early 19th century at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Thought to encourage true “penitence” (hence the name “penitentiary”), solitary confinement brought about silence, but not the hoped-for remorse and reflection. Rather, prison officials observed an increase in mental illness and self-harm and suicide.
In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court noted the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on prisoners who were subjected to it for extended lengths of time. In its opinion in the case of In Re Medley, the court held that while the practice itself might be constitutional, in that particular case, it constituted cruel and unusual punishment as it was instituted for 45 days prior to the petitioner’s execution.
The use of solitary confinement fell sharply out of favor and was for the most part abandoned by the early 20th century. Prison systems began to adopt its usage on a widespread basis again in the 1980s, as imprisonment rates soared due partly to an increase in prosecutions for drug-related crimes.
Usage of Solitary Confinement Today
Today, solitary confinement is most often used for prisoners who are deemed to pose a significant risk of danger either to themselves or to others. So-called super max prisons may also keep violent or high-profile prisoners confined for 23 hours of the day, leaving one hour for exercise or visits.
On average, researchers estimate that approximately 61,000 prisoners are kept in solitary confinement on any given day in the U.S. However, complete statistics are not available for all prisons at the federal, state and local levels. Its usage is especially high among the male population of prisoners, and African-American inmates of both genders are more likely to be subjected to its extended use than white prisoners.
Positive Effects on Protecting and Enhancing Safety
The reason most often advanced for the use of solitary confinement is that it significantly reduces the risk of harm posed by dangerous prisoners to other inmates, corrections staff and visitors. Proponents of solitary confinement argue that some prisoners need to be separated from society at large for their own safety and the safety of others.
Prison administration professionals also claim that its use is both necessary and a net positive because it is restricted to “extreme” cases. It is viewed as a “last-ditch” corrective measure when the previous loss of less basic privileges has failed to bring the inmate back in line. When all else fails, its advocates claim that solitary confinement is the only measure left to correct inappropriate, dangerous or unlawful behavior behind bars.
In addition, some high-profile or “celebrity” offenders themselves are at a significantly heightened risk of injury or even death due to assaults from other inmates. Segregating these high-profile inmates from the general prison population helps keep them safe while also maintaining a better sense of order and preventing the disruptiveness that can result when institutional routines are challenged.
Negative Impacts on Mental Health
The most evident con of solitary confinement is its negative effect on mental health. Being cut off from most forms of human contact can inflict serious damage on the psyche of confined inmates. Even in the early years of solitary confinement, researchers noted increased suicide and mental illness among prisoners.
Studies have also found that solitary confinement inflicts observable damage to portions of the human brain. In some cases, the resulting damage is as severe as that found in the brains of individuals who suffered a traumatic head injury. Inmates who have undergone long-term solitary confinement often become listless, apathetic and depressed. In some cases, a full psychotic break occurs.
Effect of Solitary Confinement on Inmate Rehabilitation
Solitary confinement may cost inmates the ability to self-regulate and interact properly with others in a social setting. Thus, its prolonged use can also make it more difficult for inmates to integrate themselves back into society. Studies also show that inmates who have undergone solitary confinement are more prone to bouts of severe anger and depression, even after the solitary confinement period has ended. Both of these conditions are likely to contribute to a higher risk for recidivism.
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.