The Problem of Solitary Confinement

By Lieutenant Jessica Moye, Blacksburg Police Department,

[Note: This essay was written as the final assignment in Professor Luke William Hunt’s Radford University graduate seminar, “Public Policy and Criminal Justice”]

There is some variability in how solitary confinement—sometimes referred to as restrictive housing—is defined, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) (2015) suggests that restrictive housing incorporates three elements.  These include the removal of an inmate from the general population, placement in a locked room or cell, and the inability to leave the room for approximately 22 hours a day.  The removal from the general population may be implemented for protection of the inmate, to prevent disorder, for disciplinary reasons, and for many other reasons.

            Overcrowding in prisons as well as the development of organized street gangs in the 1970s and 1980s stretched the resources of facilities and the ability of corrections officers to control inmates (DOJ, 2015; CNA Solutions and Analysis, 2014).  This, combined with the increased use of prisons to house those with mental health issues (Lamb & Weinberger, 2005) and the murder of two correctional officers in 1983 in USP Marion, Illinois resulted in the creation of prisons to house inmates for long-term segregation (DOJ, 2015).

            The cruel and excessive use of restrictive housing in prisons, however, has been argued to have many long-term effects.  Benforado (2015) argues that solitary confinement has a detrimental effect not only for those who are already experiencing some type of mental illness, but also for those who have relatively healthy minds.  Humans have a strong need for social interaction and being deprived of this need has been linked not only to cognitive issues, but also physical health issues.  Benforado goes on to state that inmates in solitary confinement often experience a host of psychological issues including depression, hallucinations, paranoia, lapses in memory, and irrational anger.  Some inmates may even engage in self-mutilation and it is estimated that a large number of prison suicides are committed by prisoners in solitary confinement.

            This article discusses evidence related to the side effects of long-term use of solitary confinement through statistical data and scientific research.  It proposes several policy alternatives as well as the potential outcomes.  A thorough discussion of the expectations of the proposed policy changes is conducted to confront the potential outcomes and the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed alternatives so that an informed decision can be made.

Assembling Evidence

            The Bureau of Justice Statistics (Beck, 2015) provides many statistics on the use of restrictive housing in both prisons and jails as revealed through the National Inmate Survey.  An examination of statistics provides insight into the extent of the use of restrictive housing as well as important data related to its effects.  Additionally, other research found in scientific journals support these findings.

            Jail and prison inmates completed the National Inmate Survey between 2011 and 2012 which revealed that approximately 2.7% of jail inmates and approximately 4.4% of state and federal inmates had been held in solitary or administrative confinement (Beck, 2015).  Further, over the 12-month period, approximately 18% of inmates in prisons had spent time in restrictive housing while 17% of inmates in jails had spent time in restrictive housing.  Finally, 5% of jail inmates and 10% of prison inmates were in restrictive housing for more than 30 days.

            In addition to the statistical prevalence of restrictive housing, the survey also collected data on several mental health measures for those who had spent time in restrictive housing (Beck, 2015).  The survey revealed that a number of inmates had been diagnosed in the past with a mental health disorder, 26% for prison inmates, and 23% for jail inmates.  The percentages for prison and jail inmates with no mental health issues who spent time in restrictive housing were 14% and 12% respectively.  The survey also revealed that inmates who had serious psychological distress were more likely to spend time in restrictive housing than those who did not have serious psychological distress.  The report suggested that symptoms of serious psychological distress may be triggered by extended periods in restrictive housing, however, the data revealed that the length of time in restrictive housing was not correlated with the rate of serious psychological distress.

            A study on self-harm was conducted using data from New York jails which revealed that 7.3% of inmates in New York jails had spent time in solitary confinement (Kaba et al., 2014).  The study also revealed that being in solitary confinement and suffering from severe mental illness were significantly associated with an act of self-harm and potentially fatal self-harm.  Finally, inmates were 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm when they had been subjected to solitary confinement, even when controlling for severe mental illness.  Haney (2003) conducted a study on 100 inmates in the special housing unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay and discovered that 27% of the inmates surveyed had suicidal thoughts.  Some of the highest psychological effects included ruminations, irrational anger, oversensitivity to stimuli, and confused thought processes.

            While some supporters of solitary confinement believe that it has a deterrent effect on problem behavior, studies have suggested otherwise.  Medrano, Ozkan, and Morris (2017) found that prisoners who received solitary confinement as a punishment were also likely to receive solitary confinement a second or third time.  There was also an increase in discipline problems after being exposed to solitary confinement.

            Future studies in this area would be strengthened if initial interviews were conducted with prison administrators from various jails and prisons to ascertain their policies on using solitary confinement and who ultimately makes the decision to use this as a punishment.  Questions should also be asked to determine if there are alternative methods of punishment that may be used in place of solitary confinement and their personal and professional opinions on the use of solitary confinement as a discipline measure.  It would also be beneficial to ask questions related to the proposed policy alternatives to gauge if such recommendations would receive their support.  Requests can be made to speak with corrections officers operating solitary confinement units, the decision makers for this type of punishment, and prison counselors.  These officials are more familiar with the day to day operations of the prison and can provide first-hand knowledge about the use of solitary confinement and its observed effects.  Prison counselors may also be able to speak on a professional level about the effects of solitary confinement and obtain consent from prisoners for further interviews.

Constructing Alternatives

            In an effort to encourage reform in the use of solitary confinement, organizations have developed guiding principles for its use.  For example, the Association for State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) (2013) recommends a number of things, including access to exercise, proper hygiene, and using an inmate’s threat to safety and the nature of the offense to determine an inmate’s length of stay.  The DOJ (2015) recommends that inmates should be placed in housing based upon what is needed to achieve their own safety as well as that of staff, and other inmates.  The DOJ also recommends that inmates’ placement in restrictive housing be documented and reviewed.  Like the ASCA, the DOJ also recommends creating a list of offenses for which inmates could receive restrictive housing.  The following provides several potential policy changes for restrictive housing, some of which are based on the suggested guiding principles.

            The first alternative is for current solitary confinement practices to remain the same, meaning that prison officials would continue to use it as a viable form of punishment.  Continued use under the current methods, however, is likely to result in continued mental and physical health concerns.  

The second alternative includes strict guidelines on the use of solitary confinement as suggested by DOJ (2015) and ASCA (2013).  The guidelines would restrict the type of offenses for which solitary confinement can be applied, set the maximum number of consecutive days in isolation, and recommend that it only be used as a last resort.  This alternative also requires that the incident be clearly documented and reviewed by a disciplinary committee.  Programs aimed at resolving the problematic behavior should also be administered during in inmate’s time in confinement so that he may return to the general population.  The Washington and Virginia Departments of Corrections have implemented similar intensive behavioral change programs which have been found to be successful (DOJ, 2015).

            The final alternative is to completely remove solitary confinement as a form of punishment and replace it with a feasible disciplinary alternative with input provided by prison staff and officials.  While the author is not aware of any institutions within the U.S. that have completely abolished solitary confinement, some have increased their use of alternative sanctions.  For example, Hampden County Correctional Center (Massachusetts) no longer uses solitary confinement as discipline for behavior issues that arise from an inmate’s mental illness and have created an intervention unit that addresses those in crisis (DOJ, 2015).  This and several other policies were created from proposals made by a multi-disciplinary committee formed to bring reform to the correctional center’s current confinement practices.

Selecting Criteria

            The goal of the selected policy is to minimize mental health issues that result from the use of solitary confinement through efficient means.  This goal is practical because it would be unreasonable to suggest that mental health issues could be completely eliminated, but any progress in the minimization of mental health issues as a result of long-term solitary confinement, or those exacerbated by solitary confinement would be an acceptable outcome.  If no changes are made to current solitary confinement practices, mental health issues will likely continue to multiply along with the prison population.

            The second alternative above presents a middle ground alternative that will likely achieve the desired outcome while also leaving room for more changes at a later time if necessary. Organizations such as the DOJ and ASCA have suggested guidelines similar to those recommended in this alternative.  Further, several correctional departments have already begun to implement similar practices in whole or in part that have shown promising results.  This alternative would also be efficient because it only requires the development of strict guidelines for the use of solitary confinement, and it does not require extensive changes to current prison practices.  Additionally, there is still the option of isolation for inmates that pose a serious safety risk to correctional staff, other inmates, or themselves.  Current behavioral programs can be expanded to create more intense programs for those who will be released back into the general population after serving their time in solitary confinement.

            The final alternative will probably achieve the desired outcome, but it would also require significant changes to current prison practices through the creation of alternative disciplinary measures.  This process may be time consuming and necessitate the acquisition of additional financing, therefore, making it less efficient.  It may also be difficult to obtain buy-in from prison officials, particularly because such drastic changes are being suggested.

Projecting Outcomes

            Studies have shown that the extensive use of solitary confinement can result in wide-ranging mental health issues.  For this reason, the first alternative is not a viable option.  Sustained, unguided use of solitary confinement will continue to inflict harm to prisoner’s mental health and well-being.  The second alternative provides a balance between the need for minimizing mental health issues, protecting the safety of inmates and staff, and preserving efficiency within the system.  It is difficult to determine the extent to which mental health issues may be avoided by implementing these changes, however, a reduction in violent or problematic behavior may potentially be a practical measure to begin with.  In this case, a 20% reduction in problem behavior is a realistic expectation as some correctional facilities such as those in Washington State have observed a reduction in disciplinary issues when there was less reliance on solitary confinement combined with cognitive behavior therapy (DOJ, 2015).  Additionally, changes can be made quickly because there are no extensive changes being made to current prison practices.

            The final alternative also has the least amount of certainty because there are no states that have completely cut ties with the use solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure.  Using alternative punishments may help to reduce the onset of new mental illnesses, but  completely removing the option of solitary confinement could also be detrimental because there would be limited options for those that are particularly violent.  This may ultimately result in a safety issue for the staff and other inmates.  This alternative is also the least efficient and would likely take a significant amount of time and resources to develop, but it may be implemented as a long-term goal if there are no observed positive changes as result of other alternatives.

Confronting Trade-Offs

            In confronting the trade-offs for alternative implementation, the commensurability of each alternative should be evaluated.  Commensurability can be established by weighting the importance of each criteria (Bardach & Patashnik, 2016).  While the criteria of minimizing mental health issues and efficiency are both important, this analysis has a somewhat higher regard for efficiency.  Ultimately, alternative one does not meet any of the selected criteria.  The current applications of solitary confinement create a system of long-term mental health problems that cannot be resolved and therefore makes the system inefficient.

            Alternative two appears to be the most efficient approach and would also allow the greatest flexibility if future changes need to be made.  Changes can be implemented quickly without being too costly, and it is still likely to result in lower mental health issues.  Unlike the third alternative, it may be easier to find support from each state’s department of corrections for several reasons.

            The argument can be made that change is difficult for people, and bringing about institutional change can be an even greater undertaking.  Alternative two allows some minimal changes to be made while the third alternative is drastic and likely to result in a significant amount of pushback from prison administrators.  The costs of implementing the third alternative will probably be excessive for already overextended budgets.  Finally, prison administrators may see it as a safety issue for their staff if they do not have the option of using solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool for their more violent inmates.  Although the final alternative may eventually prove to provide a reduction in mental health issues, implementation would not be efficient.  Creating new disciplinary alternatives and policy changes can be very time consuming and if this alternative is found to not be productive, it would be difficult to return to using solitary confinement once so many resources have been invested in the changes.

Narrowing the Options

            Alternative one, while important to address, is not a valid option.  The prison system cannot afford to continue to operate with the current solitary confinement practices.  The third alternative presents a number of difficulties for implementation.  Because of the extensive changes and financial costs, it may not receive sufficient backing from prison administrators.  The proposed disciplinary alternatives may also be unpredictable and may not produce the desired results or more importantly, cause more safety issues than what was intended.  The second alternative provides the best alternative and is likely to receive support from prison administrators, because it still allows the use of solitary confinement with restrictions.  Officials are more likely to react favorably to small rather than significant changes.  The second alternative also leaves a path open for future changes such as those presented in the third alternative.  It is flexible in that it does not completely eliminate the use of solitary confinement, but still allows the opportunity to make changes.


            Extensive use of solitary confinement continues to have a negative impact on the mental well-being of inmates (Benforado, 2015).  Even prisoners that were once considered to have no mental health issues leave solitary confinement with an assortment of psychological problems. Not only are prisoners paying the ultimate price for these harsh discipline practices, but the community is left trying to resolve the continued effects once prisoners are released.  Studies have shown that the extensive use of solitary confinement may result in mental health issues, several mental distresses, self-harm by inmates, and perhaps increased recidivism.  Small but powerful policy changes within the prison system can help minimize the onset of mental health issues, reduce recidivism rates, and ultimately reduce overall prison costs.


Association for State Correctional Administrators.  (2013).  Restrictive status housing policy guidelines.  Retrieved from

Bardach, E. and Patashnik, E.M.  (2016).  A practical guide for policy analysis: The eightfold path to more effective problem solving.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Beck, A.J.  Bureau of Justice Statistics.  (2015).  Use of restrictive housing in U.S. prisons and jails, 2011-2012.  Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Benforado, A.  (2015).  Unfair: The new science of criminal justice.  New York, NY: Broadway Books.

CNA Analysis and Solutions.  (2014).  Federal bureau of prisons: Special housing unit review and assessment.  Arlington, VA: The CNA Corporation.

Department of Justice.  (2015).  Report and recommendations concerning the use of restrictive housing.  Washington DC: Government Printing Office.

Haney, C.  (2003).  Mental health issues in long-term solitary and supermax confinement.  Crime and Delinquency, 49(1), 124-156.

Kaba, F, Lewis, A., Glowa-Kollisch, S., Hadler, J., Lee, D., Alper, H.,…., Venters, H.  (2014).  Solitary confinement and rise of self-harm among jail inmates.  American Journal of Public Health, 104(3), 442-447.

Lamb, H.R. & Weinberger, L.E.  (2005).  The shift of psychiatric inpatient care from hospitals to jails and prisons.  The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 33, 529-534.

Medrano, J.A., Ozkan, T., Morris, R.  (2017).  Solitary confinement exposure and capital inmate misconduct.  American Journal of Criminal Justice, 42, 863-882.