Solitary confinement is inextricably linked to correctional history. Early correctional reformers used solitary confinement as a rehabilitative philosophy. More recently, solitary confinement has been used as a retributive measure to control dangerous inmates and protect vulnerable populations.
Solitary confinement is a term used in institutional corrections that refers to the isolation or segregation of prisoners from the general population. Solitary confinement, sometimes called administrative segregation, is carried out in restrictive cell blocks, segregated housing units (SHUs, pronounced “shoes”), or supermax facilities.
The use of solitary confinement in corrections is not new. As a matter of fact, solitary confinement has a long-standing history in correctional administration. For example, the Walnut Street Jail, founded in 1790, was built on the philosophy that solitude and spiritual reflection were the best strategies for rehabilitating offenders. Walnut Street required prisoners to work and live in solitude, away from the unhealthy influence of other prisoners. Contact with the outside world was nonexistent or kept to a minimum. Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829, was quick to adopt the Walnut Street Jail philosophy. Eastern State came to be known as the Pennsylvania system or the separate system. Under the Pennsylvania model, prisoners were given a Bible and kept primarily in solitude. Complete and absolute separation from all other influences, including other inmates, was strictly enforced. Many early correctional administrators used solitary confinement, coupled with religious instruction, for rehabilitative purposes.
Today, however, correctional staff predominantly use solitary confinement as a punitive measure to control disruptive or dangerous inmates. It is a maximum-security classification level that typically involves inmates living in single cells, the reduction or complete elimination of group activities among inmates, limited contact with other human beings, infrequent outside interaction including infrequent phone calls and noncontact visitation, strengthened measures to control contraband, the use of additional security measures and equipment, and extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programs. In addition, solitary confinement is used as a form of protective custody for inmates who represent vulnerable populations (e.g., the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, homosexuals, snitches, high-profile offenders, and sex offenders).
There are a number of ethical concerns surrounding the use of solitary confinement. In supermax prisons, for instance, researchers voice concerns about the effects of prolonged solitary confinement on the mental health of prisoners. Literature in the social sciences consistently shows that when human beings are subjected to social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation, they may suffer from mental deterioration and in some cases develop symptoms of psychiatric disturbances. These include perceptual distortions, hallucinations, hyper-responsivity to external stimuli, aggressive fantasies, overt paranoia, inability to concentrate, and problems with impulse control. Although the conditions of solitary confinement are relatively extreme, they do not have a uniform effect on all inmates. Occasionally, the solitary environment may actually prove beneficial. A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice suggests that short-term segregation (less than one year) actually showed improved mental functioning including lower levels of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, hostility/anger control, hypersensitivity, and psychosis.
There also is evidence to suggest that the medical and psychiatric care of segregated inmates is woefully inadequate. In the case of Madrid v. Gomez (1995), inmates challenged the conditions of confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison’s segregated housing unit (SHU). The medical services at the SHU were chronically deficient, and medical personnel were provided with insufficient training and supervision. Additionally, mental health services were found to be markedly lacking. For example, Pelican Bay failed to offer screening of inmates entering the SHU for psychiatric illness, and as a result, many psychiatrically ill prisoners did not receive proper treatment until they became flagrantly psychotic or suicidal.
Some legal scholars argue that the use of solitary confinement is unfair because inmates are not entitled to the same due process rights as individuals facing disciplinary hearings. In Hewitt v. Helms (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court held that prisoners have no independent federal constitutional due process liberty interest in remaining free from segregation because it is a type of confinement that prisoners should reasonably anticipate receiving at some point during their incarceration. The absence of due process rights increases the likelihood that correctional staff may arbitrarily subject prisoners to long periods of segregation. California recognizes the potential for such an abuse and, according to the California Code of Regulations, there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest to be free from placement in administrative segregation. One of three situations must be present: (1) the inmate presents an immediate threat to the safety of the inmate or others, (2) the inmate endangers institution security, or (3) the inmate jeopardizes the integrity of an investigation of an alleged serious misconduct or criminal activity.
It is important to note that solitary confinement can be positive and is often warranted. Within correctional facilities, there are inmates who are particularly vulnerable to victimization. For instance, jailhouse informants (i.e., snitches), if discovered, may be physically assaulted in retaliation for their perceived disloyalty. As a result, they need to be placed in administrative segregation for protection. Likewise, sex offenders represent a class of inmates that may need additional administrative protection. Many offenders find sex crimes to be morally reprehensible, and therefore are likely to physically assault sex offenders if given the chance.
The use of solitary confinement is certainly warranted to protect correctional staff and inmates from dangerous prisoners. Inmates with repeated institutional disciplinary infractions or who have shown a pervasive pattern of acting out violently must be segregated to reduce the likelihood that they will injure others.
- Arrigo, Bruce A. and Jennifer Leslie Bullock. “The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units: What We Know and Recommending What Should Change.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, v.52/6 (2008).
- Bulman, Phillip. “The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Corrections Today, v.74/3 (2012).
- O’Keefe, Maureen L. “Administrative Segregation From Within: A Correctional Perspective.” Prison Journal, v.88 (2008).
- Whitehead, John T., Kimberly D. Dodson, and Bradley D. Edwards. Corrections: Exploring Crime, Punishment, and Justice in America. Waltham, MA: Anderson Publishing, 2013.
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