Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment distinguished by living in single cells with little or no meaningful contact with other inmates, strict measures to control contraband, and the use of additional security measures and equipment. It is specifically designed for disruptive inmates who are security risks to other inmates, the prison staff, or the prison itself -- but can also be used as a measure of protection for inmates whose safety is threatened by other inmates or as a form of disciplinary punishment.
According to a 2017 review study, "a robust scientific literature has established the negative psychological effects of solitary confinement", leading to "an emerging consensus among correctional as well as professional, mental health, legal, and human rights organizations to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement." The United Nations considers solitary confinement exceeding 15 days to be torture.
The practice of solitary confinement traces its origins back to the 19th century when Quakers in Pennsylvania used this method as a substitution for public punishments. Research surrounding the possible psychological and physiological effects of solitary confinement dates back to the 1830s. When the new prison discipline of separate confinement was introduced at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829, commentators attributed the high rates of mental breakdown to the system of isolating prisoners in their cells. Charles Dickens, who visited the Philadelphia Penitentiary during his travels to America, described the "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body". Prison records from the Denmark institute in 1870 to 1920 indicate that staff noticed inmates were exhibiting signs of mental illnesses while in isolation, revealing that the persistent problem has been around for decades.
In the twentieth century, Scandinavian countries such as Denmark have extensively used solitary confinement for prisoners in pretrial detention with the stated goal of preventing them from interfering in the investigation. Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was held in solitary confinement, partly to protect him from other inmates. However, his complaint was partially upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2016.
The first comment by the Supreme Court of the United States about solitary confinement's effect on prisoner mental status was made in 1890 (In re Medley 134 U.S. 160). In it the court found that the use of solitary confinement produced reduced mental and physical capabilities.
The practice is used when a prisoner is considered dangerous to themselves or to others, is suspected of organizing or being engaged in illegal activities outside of the prison, or, as in the case of a prisoner such as a child molester or a witness, is at a high risk of being harmed by other inmates. The latter example is a form of protective custody. Solitary confinement is also commonly used as a form of punishment for violation of prison rules or other disciplinary infractions by an inmate. Solitary confinement is the norm in supermax prisons, where prisoners who are deemed dangerous or of high risk are held.
Solitary confinement is colloquially referred to in Australian English as "the Slot" or "the Pound".
In the United States penal system, upwards of 20 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 18 percent of local jail inmates are kept in solitary confinement or another form of restrictive housing at some point during their imprisonment. The period of confinement can last from a few days to several decades. According to Homer Venters, former Chief Medical Officer for the New York City jail system, "Solitary confinement is utilised for tens of thousands of people for years at a time." As of 2021, there have been attempts in New York to ban the use of solitary confinement for periods of more than 15 days, in line with UN recommendations against the use of torture.
Solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for prisoners in Europe was largely reduced or eliminated during the twentieth century.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or CPT, defines solitary confinement as "whenever a prisoner is ordered to be held separately from other prisoners, for example, as a result of court decision, as a disciplinary sanction imposed within the prison system, as a preventive administrative measure or for the protection of the prisoner concerned". The CPT "considers that solitary confinement should only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort and for the shortest possible time".
In Italy, a person sentenced to more than one life sentence is required to serve a period of between 6 months to 3 years in solitary confinement during the daytime only.
The use of solitary confinement on juveniles and children, as elsewhere, has been a subject of contention. Critics argue that, in the United Kingdom, the state has a duty to "set the highest standards of care" when it limits the liberties of children. Frances Crook is one of many to believe that incarceration and solitary confinement are the harshest forms of possible punishments and "should only be taken as a last resort". Because children are still mentally developing, incarceration also should not encourage them to commit more violent crimes.
The penal system has been cited as failing to protect juveniles in custody. In the United Kingdom, 29 children died in penal custody between 1990 and 2006: "Some 41% of the children in custody were officially designated as being vulnerable". That is attributed to the fact that isolation and physical restraint are used as the first response to punish them for simple rule infractions. Moreover, Frances Crook argues that these punitive policies not only violate their basic rights but also leave the children mentally unstable and left with illnesses that are often ignored. Overall, the solitary confinement of youth is considered to be counterproductive because the "restrictive environment... and intense regulation of children" aggravates them, instead of addressing the issue of rehabilitation.
The headquarters for the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) in Plaza Venezuela, Caracas, have an underground detention facility that has been dubbed La Tumba (The Tomb). The facility is located at the place that the underground parking for the Metro Caracas was to be located. The cells are two by three meters that have a cement bed, white walls, security cameras, no windows, and barred doors, with cells aligned next to one another so that there is no interaction between prisoners. Such conditions have caused prisoners to become very ill, but they are denied medical treatment. Bright lights in the cells are kept on so that prisoners lose their sense of time, with the only sounds heard being from the nearby Caracas Metro trains. Those who visit the prisoners are subjected to strip searches by multiple SEBIN personnel.
Allegations of torture in La Tumba, specifically white torture, are also common, with some prisoners attempting to commit suicide. Those conditions according to the NGO Justice and Process are intended to make prisoners plead guilty to the crimes that they are accused of.
There is a scholarly consensus that solitary confinement is seriously harmful, which has led to a growing movement to abolish it.
Physicians have concluded that for those inmates who enter the prison already diagnosed with a mental illness, the punishment of solitary confinement is extremely dangerous in that the inmates are more susceptible to exacerbating the symptoms. Research indicates that the psychological effects of solitary confinement may encompass "anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis." A main issue with isolating prisoners who are known to have mental illnesses is that it prevents the inmates from ever possibly recovering. Instead, many "mentally ill prisoners decompensate in isolation, requiring crisis care or psychiatric hospitalization." It is also noted that if a prisoner is restrained from interacting with the individuals they wish to have contact with they exhibit similar effects.
The lack of human contact, and the sensory deprivation that often go with solitary confinement, can have a severe negative impact on a prisoner's mental state that may lead to certain mental illnesses such as depression, permanent or semi-permanent changes to brain physiology, an existential crisis, and death.
According to a March 2014 article in American Journal of Public Health, "Inmates in jails and prisons attempt to harm themselves in many ways, resulting in outcomes ranging from trivial to fatal."
Self harm was seven times higher among the inmates where seven percent of the jail population was confined in isolation. Fifty-three percent of all acts of self harm took place in jail. "Self-harm" included, but was not limited to, cutting, banging heads, self-amputations of fingers or testicles. These inmates were in bare cells, and were prone to jumping off their beds head first into the floor or even biting through their veins in their wrists. A main issue within the prison system and solitary confinement is the high number of inmates who turn to self-harm.
One study has shown that "inmates ever assigned to solitary confinement were 3.2 times as likely to commit an act of self-harm per 1,000 days at some time during their incarceration as those never assigned to solitary. These inmates assigned to solitary were 2.1 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm during the days that they were actually in solitary confinement and 6.6 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm during the days that they were not in solitary confinement, relative to inmates never assigned to solitary confinement." The study has concluded that there is a direct correlation between inmates who self-harm and inmates that are punished into solitary confinement. Many of the inmates look to self-harm as a way to "avoid the rigors of solitary confinement." Mental health professionals ran a series of tests that ultimately concluded that "self-harm and potentially fatal self-harm associated with solitary confinement was higher independent of mental illness status and age group."
Solitary confinement has been reported to cause hypertension, headaches and migraines, profuse sweating, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Many inmates also experience extreme weight loss due to digestion complications and abdominal pain. Many of these symptoms are due to the intense anxiety and sensory deprivation. Inmates can also experience neck and back pain and muscle stiffness due to long periods of little to no physical activity. These symptoms often worsen with repeated visits to solitary confinement.
Some sociologists argue that prisons create a unique social environment that do not allow inmates to create strong social ties outside or inside of prison life. Men are more likely to become frustrated, and therefore more mentally unstable when keeping up with family outside of prisons. Extreme forms of solitary confinement and isolation can affect the larger society as a whole. The resocialization of newly released inmates who spent an unreasonable amount of time in solitary confinement and thus suffer from serious mental illnesses is a huge dilemma for society to face. The effects of isolation unfortunately do not stop once the inmate has been released. After release from segregated housing, psychological effects have the ability to sabotage a prisoner's potential to successfully return to the community and adjust back to 'normal' life. The inmates are often startled easily, and avoid crowds and public places. They seek out confined small spaces because the public areas overwhelm their sensory stimulation.
In 2002, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America, chaired by John Joseph Gibbons and Nicholas Katzenbach found that: "The increasing use of high-security segregation is counter-productive, often causing violence inside facilities and contributing to recidivism after release."
Solitary confinement is considered to be a form of psychological torture with measurable long-term physiological effects when the period of confinement is longer than a few weeks or is continued indefinitely. In October 2011, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, told the General Assembly's third committee, which deals with social, humanitarian, and cultural affairs, that the practice could amount to torture: "Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles." In November 2014. the United Nations Committee Against Torture stated that full isolation for 22-23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable. The United Nations have also banned the use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days.
In immigration detention centers, reports have surfaced concerning its use against detainees in order to keep those knowledgeable about their rights away from other detainees. In the prison-industrial complex itself, reports of solitary confinement as punishment in work labor prisons have also summoned much criticism. One issue prison reform activists have fought against is the use of Security Housing Units (extreme forms of solitary confinement). They argue that they do not rehabilitate inmates but rather serve only to cause inmates psychological harm. Further reports of placing prisoners into solitary confinement based on sexual orientation, race and religion have been an ongoing but very contentious subject in the last century.
Research has shown that the routine features of prison can make huge demands on limited coping resources. After prison many ex-convicts with mental illness do not receive adequate treatment for their mental health issues, because health services turn them away. This is caused by restrictive policies or lack of resources for treating the formerly incarcerated individual. In a study focusing on women and adolescent men, those who had health insurance, received mental health services, or had a job were less likely to return to jail. However, very few of the 1,000 individuals in this study received support from mental health services.
Treating mentally ill patients by sentencing them into solitary confinement has captured the attention of human rights experts who conclude that "solitary confinement may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" that violates rights specifically targeting cruel, inhuman treatment. Health care professionals and organizations recognize the fact that solitary confinement is not ethical, yet the segregating treatment fails to come to a halt. "Experience demonstrates that prisons can operate safely and securely without putting inmates with mental illness in typical conditions of segregation." Despite this and medical professionals' obligations, segregation policies have not changed because mental health clinics believe that "isolation is necessary for security reasons." In fact, many believe that it is ethical for physicians to help those in confinement but that the physicians should also be trying to stop the abuse. If they cannot do so they are expected to undertake public advocacy.
The legality of solitary confinement has been frequently challenged over the past sixty years as conceptions surrounding the practice have changed. Much of the legal discussion concerning solitary confinement has centered on whether or not it constitutes torture or cruel and unusual punishment. While international law has generally begun to discourage solitary confinement's use in penal institutions, opponents of solitary confinement have been less successful at challenging it within the United States legal system.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other UN bodies have stated that the solitary confinement (physical and social isolation of 22-24 hours per day for 1 day or more) of young people under age 18, for any duration, constitutes cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.
The documented psychological effects led one Texas judge in a 2001 suit to rule that "Solitary confinement units are virtual incubators of psychoses--seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities." In fact, as of 2016, there have been thirty-five U.S. Supreme Court cases petitioning solitary confinement.
Throughout the twentieth century, the United Nations' stance on solitary confinement has become increasingly oppositional. International law has reflected this change, and UN monitoring has led to a major reduction of solitary confinement.
In 1949, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Although the Declaration is non-binding, the basic human rights outlined within it have served as the foundation of customary international law. The relevance of the Declaration to solitary confinement is found in Article 5, which states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Thus, if solitary confinement is believed to constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, then the country practicing solitary confinement is violating the provisions set by the UDHR.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), effective 1976, reiterates the fifth article of the UDHR; Article 7 of the ICCPR identically states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Because the ICCPR is a legally binding agreement, any nation that is signatory to the covenant would be violating international law if it practiced torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
At the time that the UDHR and ICCPR were adopted, solitary confinement was not yet believed to constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Its practice, therefore, was not believed to violate international law. This changed, however, after the UN definition of torture was outlined in detail in the 1984 Convention Against Torture (CAT); Article 1.1 of the CAT states that torture is "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person" for any reason such as obtaining information or punishment, and Article 16 of the same convention prohibits "other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Based on these provisions, many members of the UN began to believe that solitary confinement's detrimental psychological effects could, indeed, constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, if not, torture. In the years following the CAT, UN representatives "have publicly decried the use of solitary confinement as a violation of the CAT and ICCPR," as well as the UDHR.
In more recent years, UN representatives have strengthened their efforts to stop solitary confinement from being used worldwide. The urgency with which representatives have undertaken these efforts is largely due to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Manfred Nowak and Juan Méndez. Nowak and Méndez have both "repeatedly unequivocally stated that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and may amount to torture". Nowak and Méndez have been especially critical of long-term or prolonged solitary confinement, which they define as lasting fifteen days or more. Their authority and explicit characterization of solitary confinement as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment has led the UN to include long-term to indefinite solitary confinement in the group of practices that violate the provisions outlined in the UDHR, ICCPR, and CAT. Solitary confinement lasting for a short period of time, however, is allowed under international law when used as a last resort, though Nowak, Mendez, and many other UN representatives believe that the practice should be abolished altogether.
According to a law review article by Elizabeth Vasiliades, America's detention system is far below the basic minimum standards for treatment of prisoners under international law and has caused an international human rights concern: "U.S. solitary confinement practices contravene international treaty law, violate established international norms, and do not represent sound foreign policy."
The examples and perspective in this section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (June 2020)
The 2013 California prisoner hunger strike saw approximately 29,000 prisoners protesting conditions. This statewide hunger strike reaching 2/3 of California's prisons began with the organizing of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison. On 11 July 2011, prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison began a hunger strike to "protest torturous conditions in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) there..." and to advocate for procedural and policy changes like the termination of the "debriefing process" which forces prisoners "to name themselves or others as gang members as a condition of access to food or release from isolation". Nearly 7,000 inmates throughout the California prison system stood in solidarity with these Pelican State Bay prisoners in 2011 by also refusing their food. Also in solidarity with the 2011 Pelican Bay prisoners on strike is the Bay Area coalition of grassroots organizations known as the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. This coalition has aided the prisoners in their strike by providing a legal support force for their negotiations with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and by creating and running a media based platform to raise support and awareness for the strikers and their demands among the general public.
Solitary confinement has served as a site of inspiration for protest-organizing against its use in and outside of prisons and conversely, as a response tactic for prisons to react to the protest-organizing of its prisoners. In March 2014, authorities at the Northwest Detention Center in Washington relegated multiple detainees to solitary confinement units after their participation in protests for the improvement of conditions within the facility and in solidarity with activist organizing against deportation escalations outside of the facility.
Scrutiny of super-maximum security prisons and the institutionalization of solitary confinement is accompanied by suggestions for alternative methods. One alternative is to administer medical treatment for disorderly inmates who display signs of mental illness. The Correction Department of New York City implemented plans to transfer mentally ill inmates to an internal facility for further help rather than solitary confinement in 2013. Dora B. Schriro, correction commissioner, said that treatment would help turn a "one size fits all" policy into a program to promote success in jail and the outside world. A second alternative is to deal with long-term inmates by promoting familial and social relationships through the encouragement of visitations which may help boost morale. Carl Kummerlowe believes that familial counseling and support may be useful for inmates nearing the end of a long-term sentence that may otherwise exhibit signs of aggression. This alternative would help inmates cope with extreme long term sentences in prisons such as those harbored in Pelican Bay. A third alternative would involve regular reevaluation and accelerated transition of isolated inmates back to prison population to help curb long-term effects of solitary confinement. These alternative methods suggest a more restorative justice approach to handling high-security offenders.
Many states such as Colorado, Mississippi, and Maine have implemented plans to reduce use of supermax prisons and solitary confinement and have begun to show signs of reform. Joseph Ponte, Corrections Commissioner of Maine, cut supermax prison population by half. Colorado has announced reforms to limit the use of solitary confinement in prisons following a study that showed significant levels of confinement and isolation in prisons. Washington has also showed signs of decreased use of solitary confinement, low segregation of overall prison population, and emphasis on alternative methods.
Most prison systems feature solitary confinement among their repertoire of disciplinary punishments for prisoners.