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Solitary Confinement of Prisoners Essay

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Updated: Apr 20th, 2022


Over recent decades in the United States, solitary confinement of prisoners in correctional institutions has increased in prevalence and in salience (Schlanger 2010), as relevant agencies with the criminal justice system attempt to exercise a fair share of control and discipline among prisoners in a multiplicity of settings, including federal and state prisons, local jails, and immigration and national security detention facilities (Physicians for Human Rights 2013). Although solitary confinement exists under a range of names, including “disciplinary segregation”, “administrative segregation”, “supermax confinement”, “the hole”, “maximum security”, or “permanent lockdown”, it basically entails a form of segregation or isolation in which prisoners are held in total or near-total isolation for up to 23 hours a day (Schlanger 2010), with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction (Grassian 2006; Vasiliades 2005).

In the United States, solitary confinement programs are under the prison and corrections systems used by various states and are to a large extent designed to facilitate control, discipline and behavior modification of prisoners. The stakeholders involved in the solitary confinement program consist of officials of the department of corrections, prison staff, wardens, doctors, priests, qualified behavior assessors, and selected community members (Grassian 2006). It is the objective of the present paper to describe the goals of the solitary confinement program, its theoretical underpinnings, and effectiveness, and also to discuss future recommendations for making this program more effective.

Goals of the Solitary Confinement Program

Although many correctional facilities in the United States employ solitary confinement for administrative, disciplinary, or protective purposes (Vasiliades 2005), the broader objectives of the program include promoting order and protecting members of staff and inmates from dangerous prisoners, normalizing general prison conditions by allowing for more effective management and rehabilitation of other prisoners, protecting ‘prized’ inmates from harm by other inmates, and protecting the public or making the public feel safer in the event that the offender is suspected of organizing or being engaged in criminal activities out of the prison (Schlanger 2010). Other secondary goals of solitary confinement include minimizing the recidivism of inmates placed in the programs, either through a deterrent effect or via superior service delivery than in traditional prisons (Physicians for Human Rights 2013), and also minimizing the recidivism level of the general population inmates due to fear of being placed in solitary confinement (Schlanger 2010).

‘The Theoretical Underpinnings of Solitary Confinement’

Available literature demonstrates that the solitary confinement approach is predicated upon the ideological mindset that the fundamental objective of the prison system is no longer to assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners, but rather to punish, deter, and incapacitate them (Cullen & Jonson 2011). In view of this, it is suggested that the solitary confinement program is firmly nested on the criminological theories of retribution and deterrence. While the retribution theoretical lens implies that there are some offenders whose pre-prison or in-prison atrocities were so appalling and dehumanizing to the victims, hence the justification to punish such intentional, harmful behavior in solitary confinement (Haist 2009), the deterrence theoretical lens implies that some offenders within the general prison population may indeed be dissuaded from engaging in behavior or actions that are more likely to lead them to solitary confinement (Schlanger 2010). It is important to note that solitary confinement is also grounded on the unfounded assumption that limiting the interactions of inmates can positively influence their behavior and cement their way towards rehabilitation. To date, however, no evidence has been adduced to support this assumption (Physicians for Human Rights 2013; Vasiliades 2005).

Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Program

It has been reported in the literature that the proliferation of prisons and units utilizing the solitary confinement program is firmly embedded within a wider shift in the American society towards more punitive measures of disciplining offenders convicted of criminal offenses (Vasiliades 2005). Criminology scholars have noted that solitary confinement has been effective in improving many of the administrative and managerial challenges facing contemporary correctional facilities (Haist 2009) and that it enhances system-wide order, safety and control as well as incapacitate violent prisoners while ensuring the safety of inmates who are largely perceived as ‘prized’ targets by fellow inmates (Schlanger 2010).

However, the program is largely criticized not only as inhumane and possibly unconstitutional, but also as having the capacity to cause harmful effects particularly in terms of mental deterioration and the physical ailments that prisoners suffer from solitary confinement (Physicians for Human Rights 2013). Others scholars argue that the program is unable to rehabilitate offenders because, for effective rehabilitation to transpire in correctional facilities, an inmate needs to be exposed to a planned program of intervention rather than having him or her condemned to a life of solitude and expect that the fear of solitary confinement will automatically lead to positive behavior change or rehabilitation (Grassian, 2006; Schlanger 2010). Furthermore, existing literature demonstrates that solitary confinement has been unable to minimize the rate of inmate-on-inmate violence, and that previously confined prisoners released directly back into the society demonstrates high recidivism levels than comparable groups (Physicians for Human Rights 2013; Vasiliades 2005). It is important to underscore the fact that the state of California has relied on solitary confinement for many years to act as a punitive measure for individuals joining prison gangs or for those who instigate violence; however, the state is still faced with one of the worst gang problems in the United States (Schlanger 2010).

Consequently, from the above exposition, it can be concluded that the program is not only unable to successfully meet its goals and objectives in the prison and corrections system, but the theoretical perspectives of deterrence and retribution do not provide much support for solitary confinement of offenders, hence the program appears to have more of a symbolic purpose (indoctrination of fear) than anything else.


Available literature demonstrates that “solitary confinement and prolonged segregation in U.S. prisons follow neither international standards for prison management nor internationally established protections for prisoner rights” (Vasiliades 2005, p. 98). However, owing to the proliferation of contemporary criminal activities such as global terrorism, murder and rape, it appears that solitary confinement may be still needed, hence the need to come up with several recommendations for practice.

Owing to the fact that the objectives of solitary confinement are not grounded on sound theory as seen in this paper, it is important for stakeholders within the prisons and corrections department to develop a more thorough application of theory, with the view to conceptualizing solitary confinement as a new and additional approach for social control using punitive strategies. It is only through addressing the limitations in theory that the goals of the program will achieve validity. The second recommendation concerns stakeholders developing and reinforcing other mental health alternatives that could change the behavior of inmates (e.g., individual and group therapy, community reentry assistance, substance abuse counseling and specialized psychiatric care) rather than condemning them to a life of solitude inside prison walls. Lastly, in view of the fact that solitary confinement is important in some instances, it is also recommended that stakeholders should address the policy issues related to the program to ensure that it is properly understood by inmates and prison staff.


Cullen, Francis T. and Cheryl Lero Jonson. 2011. Correctional Theory: Context and Consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.

Grassian, Stuart. 2006. Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement. Journal of Law and Policy 22: 325-383.

Haist, Mathew. 2009. Deterrence in a Sea of Just Deserts: Are Utilitarian Goals Achievable in a World of Limiting Retributivism. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 47: 789-821.

Physicians for Human Rights. 2013. .

Schlanger, Margo. 2010. Regulating Segregation: The Contribution of the ABA Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners. American Criminal Law Review 47: 1422-1440.

Vasiliades, Elizabeth. 2005. Solitary Confinement and International Human Rights: Why the U.S. Prison System Fails Global Standards. American University International Law Review 21: 71-91.

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