Aug 19, 2020 in Research

Solitary Confinement

Various forms of punishment are used on offenders as a form of correcting their behavior, making sure they do not repeat the offenses they committed or both. In extreme conditions after their incarceration, offenders can be put in solitary confinement by the prison administration. Inmates have locked up alone, only getting close to two hours of light each day. It is served as a measure of last resort- a measure beyond being incarcerated. Solitary confinement raises various issues as to whether it is ethically correct to confine offenders in solitude. This is due to the various amendments to the constitution and human rights. Solitary confinement is by today’s standards seen as a gross violation of human rights and should, therefore, be stopped. This paper discusses the various issues that are related to solitary confinement and uses a supporting article to show that it is a cruel and unusual form of punishment.

Different definitions are used to describe solitary confinement. In general, however, it is a form of punishment whereby the offender is in isolation from human contact with the exception of the correctional officers. Solitary confinement is employed in several instances including as a form of protection from other inmates due to issues such as rape or violence, from themselves if they are considered suicidal, or as a form protection to other offenders. Solitary confinement has possible effects both psychological and physiological effects on a person’s mind making it have negative impacts on a person’s capabilities. It is therefore considered as a counterproductive form of punishment to offenders since, at the end of the confinement, offenders are usually in a bad state mentally.


To show evidence that is solitary confinement is counterproductive, articles have been written, and research performed by scholars. One such article is by the editors of Scientific American. According to this article dubbed Solitary Confinement Is Cruel and Ineffective, the editors start by providing the statistics about the number of people held in solitary confinement. The latest census is used in the article to estimate that about 80000 people are held in solitary confinement in the US prisons. This trend is seen as a developmental behavior by the prisons’ administration since the number of people being held in the prisons has grown compared to previous years. This growth has been without any consideration to how solitary confinement affects the offender’s personal being. This article points out that solitary confinement has led to increased violence both in and out of prison. Prisoners spend 22-24 hours each day in a room with no one else except the prison employees who bring food or take them out for the sunshine. It is an assumption that inmates who are confined alone are the wrong breed of offenders- rapists, and murderers who take their ways inside a prison. However, even non-violent offenders are often subject to this act. Some are immigration law offenders, while others are kept in isolation to protect them from other inmates. Whatever the reason for seclusion, the effects are still the same. Solitary confinement takes a severe toll on the affected party both mentally and emotionally. The editors state that researchers have seen solitary confinement cause withdrawal in the offenders, develop a light and sound sensitivity, develop paranoia, and are likely lured to violence or even develop hallucinations. They continue to add that half of the suicides committed in prisons occur in secluded cells. 

Due to the different effects of solitary confinement, the US Justice System has also been one of the bodies that have understood that seclusion does not have good results. The article cites a case in 1890 where the Supreme Court addressed the issue on solitary confinement in which a man had murdered his wife. The Supreme Court noted that even after a short period of being put in solitude, offenders fell into a semi-fatuous state. It became almost impossible for them to be aroused, while others developed violent insanity. To others, suicide became the only option for them. Those who were considered active in handling the whole ordeal were not fully corrected, and during most of the times did not reach full recovery and as a result was of limited service to the society after they got released from prison. From the above description of the effects of solitary confinement by the Supreme Court, the counter-productivity of seclusion cannot be understated. 

In the constitution of the US, citizens are protected from cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the Constitution. It prevents the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment. Based on the effects that solitary confinement has on an individual, it is a form of punishment that should be termed “cruel and unusual”. Despite this, the federal courts are yet fully to classify solitary confinement under cruel and unusual punishment. The act of confining prisoners in isolation clearly implicates the eighth amendment. In 1978, the Supreme Court declared “confinement in an isolation cell is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under Eighth Amendment standards. Recently, federal courts have put in recognition the serious mental health effects that solitary confinement has. Id continues to add that secluding human being from other humans day after day, month after month, or year after year causes substantial damage to the mental state of the individual. This is true even if the seclusion is partial. District Court Chief Judge Henderson toured a prison at one time and described the scenario: some of the inmates spent their time pacing, and this created an image like cats pacing in a zoo. This shows that solitary confinement is a cruel form of punishment.

However, despite all the historical evidence, the clinical forensic issue, and empirical research pointing out that prolonged seclusion causes mental harm to a high number of offenders who are being exposed to such conditions, the federal courts have not found any problem with solitary confinement, with exception to certain cases. They have not found seclusion to violate the standards set by the eighth amendment. An example of such exceptions can be seen in the case of Madrid vs. Gomez. In this case, the court found that the extreme isolation and limited amounts of interaction in the Pelican Bay seclusion housing unit had a likelihood of causing psychological trauma to the offenders who were secluded for more than small amounts of time. The court had found that for most offenders, however, the level of mental injury did not exceed the kind of punishment that was found compatible with the standards outlined in the eighth amendment. Nonetheless, the court agreed that there was a risk of critical mental injury to offenders, but the magnitude was not considered as serious. However, subjecting offenders with a history of mental illness to long periods of seclusion was found damaging to their mind, causing serious psychological pain to the said offenders. This case has been used to provide a distinction between general offenders and those with mental illness. 

The US judicial system is not the only court that supports the fact that lengthy periods of seclusion are damaging to a person’s mental health. International law is also another supporter of the proposition. According to Lobel, this law considers solitary confinement as either cruel or torture, degrading, and inhumane treatment. From this support by the international law, the US Judicial System has used the experienced gained by the international community especially countries of European origin as a measure of determining what is termed as cruel and unusual punishment in today’s standards. Again, other international human rights organizations agree that in certain degrees, solitary confinement can be considered an inhumane and a shameful act especially in instances where the act is prolonged. The UN Committee against Torture also argues that secluding offenders for long periods of time are both inhumane and cruel acts, and because of the adverse effects that these actions have on the offender, the practice should be abolished. 

In conclusion, solitary confinement should be considered as a cruel and unusual punishment to offenders. Research by various scholars has shown that solitary confinement has adverse effects on the health of an individual. The mental state of an offender under partial or full solitary confinement is compromised. Some offenders end up becoming violent people, others develop violent insanity, while others become liabilities to the society regarding any input after being exposed to solitary confinement. Different reasons lead to the seclusion of offenders. However, despite the reason for being solitary confined, other better ways of punishment should be developed or used other than being secluded from human interaction. Solitary confinement is, therefore, a cruel and unusual punishment served to offenders since at the end of the day; it becomes counterproductive by achieving disastrous results. 


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