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Impact of Solitary Confinement on U.S. Prison Inmates

Psych Major - Purdue University Global. Writer. Philosopher.

Solitary Confinement

Solitary Confinement

Out of the many systemically related mental health issues we face as a society, the increasing prevalence of mentally disturbed individuals in our penal system is one that I am especially sensitive to. In this article, I'd like to focus on a most pernicious universal policy that can be seen across every correctional institution—solitary confinement.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

— Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Need for Prison Reform

It’s not a secret anymore that half a million people who suffer from mental illness can be found languishing throughout most U.S. correctional facilities (PBS, 2005)—as if the overwhelming presence of private correctional institutions in this country hasn’t been a blight on our existence already. I would like to propose a complete reform of our existing correctional policies with regard to the treatment of inmates and those inmates who may qualify as being at high risk for mental illness.

Facts About Solitary Confinement

Here’s what the data suggest: There are more than 80,000 men and women in solitary confinement at any given time (AFSC, 2018), and that number is only going up. This method of punishing inmates has not proven to be effective at correction or rehabilitation in any case. I would imagine the public has enough common sense to understand how sensory deprivation and isolation can have long-lasting negative psychological effects. To be thorough, let’s look at some of the conditions that are associated with the general experience of confinement:

  • 22–24 hours a day in a single 8x8 cell
  • Extremely limited contact with other human beings, including correctional staff
  • Limited access to educational or rehabilitative programs
  • Almost no reading material or personal items
  • An inmate may be subject to gas or chemical punishment
  • Inmates may be subject to spend anywhere from 30 days up to 20 years at a time under such conditions (AFSC, 2018)

The policies that determine what an inmate has to do in order to receive this level of punishment vary from institution to institution, although it is likely that an inmate may receive an entire month of confinement for simply being in possession of contraband or controlled substance. This suggests that some percentage of those who are currently residing in administrative segregation are there due to minor, non-violent infractions. Others might also be kept in administrative segregation for extended periods of time to protect them from the gang members within the general inmate population.

The Effects of Severe Isolation

Moreover, some of the variances of behavior among these inmates could stem directly from untreated mental disorders. To imagine how macabre this situation actually is, let’s have a look at some the effects of severe isolation on an average person:

  • Hallucinations
  • Hypersensitivity to sound and physical sensation
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Diminished sense of the passage of time
  • Perceptual distortion
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Increased risk of suicide*
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Even if these protocols were designed, in part, to protect the general inmate population from the most violent offenders, how can we justify subjecting anyone, no matter how maligned, to this mental agony over such long periods of time?

What we’re seeing is an enormous level of overpopulation in our jail/prison system, and we’ve adapted to this influx by sorting individuals into these narrowly confined spaces. What percentage of them do you suppose are there by virtue of an underlying mental illness? What percentage of them do you think enter confinement and leave in a worse physical/mental condition than they were before? Even if the number in your head is relatively small, it’s too much of a moral burden for any so-called free and healthy society to bear.

How to Resolve the Problems With Confinement

The steps that I would like to take to resolve this issue is raising the bar for offenders to receive such a punishment. I would suggest instead that we design rigorous rehabilitation programs that run concurrently with the average length of a stay in confinement. Even those who qualify for confinement could have daily access to healthcare professionals with the use of video-calls and/or group chats. There are currently very little options for computer use in prisons. It could effectively reduce the risk of harm to staff by integrating some measure of technology into segregation environments to compensate for the complete loss of feedback from other human beings.

The only people who can alter these conditions is our lawmakers and those who already work within the correctional system who also see a need for reform. We have to incentivize the integration of evidence-based therapy programs and disincentivize the use of barbaric practices that invariably produce more mental illness than it cures.


AFSC (2018) Solitary Confinement Facts. Retrieved from

PBS. (2005). Frontline: The new asylums. Retrieved from

Further Listening

Mind Field S1:E1 “Isolation”

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Jessie Watson

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