Impact of Solitary Confinement on U.S. Prison Inmates

Updated on July 12, 2018
Jessie L Watson profile image

Psych Major - Purdue University Global. Writer. Philosopher.



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. For today's meditation, 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

Dark Ages

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.

Here’s what the data suggest: There are more than 80,000 men and women in solitary confinement at any given time 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. 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*

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.

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”

© 2018 Jessie Watson


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    • Jessie L Watson profile imageAUTHOR

      Jessie Watson 

      24 months ago from Wenatchee Washington

      It might also be worth having a discussion about how the conditions of certain prison environments contribute to punishable behaviors.

      We have plenty of evidence to indicate the heat levels correlate very closely with aggression and violent behavior. Most prisons and their administrators refuse to allow cool air running through their buildings...then complain when they have a riot in the middle of August.

      Or how about the organization of social hierarchies in prisons? How many low-level offenders are spending life in prison because they had to make a decision between their own death and the stabbing of another inmate? The politics of prison life are not aligned with any recognizable altruistic system of human organization. Just the opposite. It's a venus fly trap for anyone unfortunate to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

      How about the issue of hunger? Most inmates are given the minimum required level of calories each day despite the variance of nutritional needs among the entire population of inmates. Instances of hunger will inevitably lead to bad blood and envy between inmates.

      The list goes on...


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