Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why do we still use solitary confinement so often?

By Evin RothschildPublished February 11, 2019

This picture shows a typical solitary confinement cell that an inmate would spend 22-24 hours a day in.
Even after multiple scientific studies have found that solitary confinement wrecks havoc on people’s emotional state, about 5% of prisoners are still kept in solitary confinement, often for years at a time. It’s time that the system used to isolate incarcerated individuals from the rest of the prison population changed to reflect both improvements in mental health access and a more unbiased due process procedure.

After the United States prison population boomed in the 1970s, an increase in the use of solitary confinement shortly followed.  By this point, solitary confinement had already existed for over a century and a half but was not widely used at United States penitentiaries.  The first known use of solitary was in 1829 at a prison in Philadelphia where the Quakers provided isolated prisoners with just a Bible in hopes that religion would help them repent. Instead, this experiment failed miserably after many prisoners went insane and were not able to function in society. As a result, solitary confinement lost its traction for a few decades.  In the 1980s, solitary confinement started to become more popular again with the first isolation prison built in California containing the Security Housing Unit—a euphemism for solitary confinement.  This increase in the usage of solitary confinement was maintained throughout the 1990s until most states had their own isolation unit prisons.  

Solitary confinement is known by a variety of different names across prisons including isolation units, supermax prisons, Secure Housing Units (SHU), amongst others.  While the exact policies vary based on state and prison facility, solitary confinement is considered isolation for 22-24 hours per day with practically no human contact.  Different prisoners may be sentenced to isolation for a variety of reasons, including violent acts, possession of contraband, positive drug tests, or purportedly for their protection, such as being “openly gay”  These decisions are adjudicated within the prison system by prison officials who have the final word without outside influence. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 enforced an exhaustion of administrative remedies before any lawsuits against unfair treatment by the prison could be brought to court.  Therefore, prisoners cannot use the states and federal courts to appeal unfair solitary confinement until after they go through the entire prison grievance administrative process, which can often take a long time and provide no relief.  Because of these rules, the process that puts people into solitary confinement can become biased, subjective, and over reaching without outside supervision.

Once prisoners are in solitary confinement, they can remain there for anywhere between days to years. In fact, approximately 23% of prisoners in solitary confinement will remain there for over a year.  Multiple studies of long-term effects of solitary confinement have found that it has negative effects on the mental health of prisoners and can be as psychologically stressing as torture.  Anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortion, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis have all been found in prisoners after extended periods of solitary confinement, even if these prisoners went into solitary without any previous history of mental illness.  Additionally, prisoners who have previously existing mental health conditions are sent to solitary confinement at a disproportionate rate, since they are more likely to have a harder time adjusting to the strict rules of prison and are more prone to receive solitary as a disciplinary punishment.  Once in solitary confinement, these prisoners suffering from mental illnesses are more likely to deteriorate and aggravate their mental illnesses even more.  

Effects from solitary confinement on incarcerated individuals can impact people far and wide, especially if they are released.  Inmates that are released from solitary confinement are more likely to commit another crime and go back to jail.  This fact alone should be enough to show that large scale solitary confinement is not working for the American criminal justice system.  If policy makers are hopeful that prisons will rehabilitate people to being released back into the functioning society, why are we placing inmates in unrealistic social conditions, isolated from communicating with everybody?  Short term solitary confinement for a violent act in jail is understandable, but a prisoner without human contact for over a year is not only inhumane for his or her mental condition, but also not beneficial for society.

It is proven that solitary confinement can trigger and exacerbate a variety of different mental illnesses, yet over 4,000 prisoners in October of 2018 with serious illnesses were in solitary confinement.  Each prison has different rules on who goes to solitary confinement and when, but solitary confinement for those with mental illnesses should be dealt with on a national level by way of the eighth amendment.  Considering it exacerbates mental illnesses and makes inmates seven times more likely to commit self-harm, solitary confinement for those with mental illnesses should be considered cruel and unusual punishment and be abolished nationally.