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Should Solitary Confinement Be Extinct?

For security, there must be a humane way to isolate chronically violent inmates.

Key points

  • Some inmates repeatedly behave violently toward fellow inmates and staff and destroy property.
  • Institutional security needs to separate chronically violent inmates from the general prison population.
  • Studies show that solitary confinement has been misused, resulting in "cruel and unusual punishment."
  • Solitary confinement must never be imposed arbitrarily or abusively but must be employed humanely.

Nearly one month ago, I received an email from a high school student in the Midwest. He asked if he could interview me about using solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in some prisons. This teenager researched the topic on his own and posed the following questions. It was done so thoughtfully that I thought I would honor his request and, with his permission, write a post on the subject for Psychology Today. My responses below follow his line of questioning.

  1. Would eliminating solitary confinement result in an increase in inmate-on-inmate violence, inmate-on-staff violence, and inmate sexual assaults within correctional institutions?

To be able to resort to solitary confinement as a security measure within a prison is essential. It may be the only means of protecting other inmates and staff from injury after other measures have failed.

Ask any correctional officer about this issue who has worked in a prison where gang leaders hold sway, where inmates fashion weapons and attack other inmates, and assault staff. After other disciplinary measures have failed (e.g., deprivation of privileges, restriction from participating in activities, etc.), what is to be done with a violent inmate who is impervious to any set of consequences the staff may impose and unresponsive to measures that staff tries to take to deter his destructive conduct?

Consider the case of inmate Arthur who had a record of violent behavior throughout confinement at several prisons. His case record reports that, at each institution, staff tried to work with him and had given him warnings, reports, and “progressive discipline.”

His response was to escalate misconduct to a point where he was considered a “high-security concern” to inmates and staff and “the overall security of the institution.” Arthur continued to pose a known risk as his behavior never improved, no matter what institution he was housed in. A recommendation was made for what his latest prison termed “administrative confinement,” equivalent to solitary confinement.

There must be a way to segregate the most dangerous prisoners in order to protect others. Solitary confinement likely does not help the inmate and is not intended to do so. There was little question that if Arthur were to continue living among the general prison population, there would likely be more violent assaults on staff and other inmates, as well as damage to property. Placing him in solitary is not primarily for his benefit but to protect others.

  1. Do you believe the effects of solitary confinement are negative, positive, or neutral?

Clearly, solitary confinement is not a measure viewed positively by prisoners (except for those who seek “protective custody” in order to be safe from particular inmates who have threatened them). Inmates subjected to solitary confinement become more resentful, belligerent, and angry. In general, this measure's effect depends on the inmate's personality. Not all inmates handle their circumstances in the same manner.

Some institutions clearly spell out what a person must do in order to return to the general population. In other words, he is not cast into “the hole” indefinitely. In one institution, inmates were offered a course as a step toward greater freedom. It is up to the individual as to how he handles whatever situation he is in. The options for staff may be limited. Keeping an inmate in solitary for a lengthy period of time has detrimental effects. (See also studies on sensory deprivation.) However, releasing him into the general population may risk the safety of many people.

Some studies have shown the deleterious effects of lengthy isolation and sensory deprivation, although most studies have not been done on inmate populations. The studies show that long-term isolation results in a deterioration in day-to-day functioning and reasoning. They become disoriented, less responsive to the world around them, and otherwise cognitively impaired. Applying these studies to prisoners, solitary confinement has been viewed as unconstitutional because it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”

  1. Do you believe that solitary confinement acts as a deterrent to misconduct by other inmates?

This is a difficult question to answer. If there were no solitary confinement, would some inmate behavior escalate because there were no comparable serious consequences? It’s hard to tell.

It is unlikely that an inmate would refrain from a particularly heinous act because he is aware that he could end up in solitary. From his standpoint, his mind is focused on his current plan. He expects either to get away with it or to be able to handle whatever consequences might follow.

  1. Some believe that solitary confinement reduces social connectedness to the point that inmates are no longer able to be productive members of society. Do you find this to be true?

How much “social connectedness” was there before solitary confinement? How productive were they? Remember that a candidate for solitary is a criminal who has little concept of injury to others, who expect others to function on his terms, and who blames others for anything that goes wrong. He never was “socially connected.”

  1. Some jails and prisons are removing solitary confinement. Do you believe the alternatives are effective options?

I don’t know what options there are. What effective measures short of solitary confinement can be taken when a prisoner is fashioning weapons from ordinary objects to avenge his grievances against other prisoners and staff, who throws a hot liquid on a staff member who is feeding him, who floods his cell, who ignores or argues with all instructions given by the staff, and who provide evidence of being the mastermind of a group of inmates who are thought to be planning a riot?

  1. Should solitary confinement be banned?

Security is the first consideration in running a humane prison. As many have said, people are sentenced to prison as punishment for their crimes; they are not sent to prison to be “punished” by other inmates who bully, psychologically torture them, rape them, and assault them. If there is an effective method to protect inmates doing their time from being injured or killed, then solitary confinement would not be needed. If one looks at the reality of who the criminal is and the formidable task of what it takes to operate a secure correctional facility, solitary confinement or something close to it is likely to be needed as one method of prisoner management for security.

Solitary confinement has had an ugly history. In the past, inmates who incurred the wrath of prison employees for disobeying a direct order could be arbitrarily remanded to the “hole.” Clearly, such a capricious use of isolation is not only an overreaction but also a violation of individual rights. In many institutions, inmates in solitary confinement are provided a clear path by which they can earn their way out and rejoin the general population.

The current trend is away from using solitary confinement. This is opposite to the 1990s spate of building “supermax prisons,” which were mainly single-cell prisons intended to house the “worst of the worst.” Few of these facilities still exist in light of the widespread condemnation of solitary confinement. However, the problem of how to manage inmates who regularly threaten the lives of prisoners and staff remains.

Correctional facilities have devised alternatives to solitary confinement, such as lockdown alone in one’s cell, which prevents interaction with the general prison population. There can be restrictions from participating in activities, and an incentive system is provided so those restrictions are eventually lifted.

A corrections officer from the State of Florida reported that solitary confinement is regarded as “inhumane” and therefore no longer exists in Florida’s prisons. Instead, there are other ways to contain life-threatening behavior. Until an alternative to solitary confinement is devised, there remains the necessity to isolate “the worst of the worst.”

Some institutions retain that practice but call it something else. No matter how inhumane the prisoner is, the institution must remain humane in its treatment of him.

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