Home / General / Solitary Confinement, Its Effects, and Its Overuse

Solitary Confinement, Its Effects, and Its Overuse


This report by Susan Greene is a first-rate piece of work, and should be read in full. A key paragraph:

Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades. What this means, generally, is 23 hours a day in a cell the size of two queen-sized mattresses, with a single hour in an exercise cage, also alone. Some prisoners aren’t allowed visits or phone calls. Some have no TV or radio. Some never lay eyes on each other. And some go years without fresh air or sunlight.

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  • c u n d gulag

    We, as a nation, are no longer into ‘rehabilitation’ for people who commit crimes.

    We are into punishment – purely, and simply, punishment.
    And, the harsher, the better.

    I think I could survive solitary if I could read whatever I wanted, and/or had access to the internet.

    But, that AIN’T in the cards, is it?

    No, they want you to suffer!

    I’d like to force them to live inside their own minds and souls, in solitary, like they force the people convicted of crimes.

    But, even Dante might draw the line at that.
    He was too kind.
    Living inside THEIR minds and souls is another “Circle of Hell” that not even he could have imagined.
    It’s too dark a place for even Satan to peer into…

    • Njorl

      We are into punishment – purely, and simply, punishment.
      And, the harsher, the better.

      That’s true. The cruel treatment of prisoners makes them harder and more expensive to incarcerate. If we weren’t so obsessed with misery, we’d have less recidivism, less prison violence and lower expenses per prisoner.

  • Jay B.

    Gut wrenching. We are a sick society in every meaning of the word.

    • Charlie Sweatpants

      I read a discussion somewhere a couple of years ago about what things future generations would hold us in contempt for the same way we’re contemptuous of things like slavery, primogeniture and using the death penalty for petty theft. There were quite a few answers, but our policy of massive and often very cruel incarceration won quite a lot of support for being stupid, counterproductive, unnecessary, and (relatively speaking) not due to any longstanding cultural biases or practices.

      • Ben

        The fact that future historians will (hopefully) have access to all the “rape in prison harf harf” jokes that occur isn’t going to help things.

    • Lee

      Yes and this is a problem for liberals. We can’t get liberal policies unless people are willing to elect more liberal politicians. Most politicians will not try to advocate policies that they know that most of the people won’t like. In parliamentary regimes, its more than a little easier for politicians to go against public desires at least until the next election. In our regime, not so much.

  • Mark

    I keep thinking how many people would be outraged to learn that prisoners in solitary confinement are allowed to watch tv.

    • mpowell

      Yeah, so do I. It’s sad.

    • L2P

      God forbid they have cable.

    • Halloween Jack

      The really sad thing is that it’s done purely for control purposes, not because they care at all about the prisoner’s welfare. (I remember reading something about prisoners being supplied with black-and-white televisions, long after they’d become pretty rare, because for the longest time it was a source of outrage to law-and-order types that prisoners had color TVs, even though color TVs had long since become a fact of life to almost any American who wanted one.)

  • david mizner

    Yeah, and a lot of people don’t realize that some people, often juveniles are held in solitary before their trial, ostensibly to protect them.


    Atul Guwande says that in terms of psychological effect, solitary is worse than physical torture.

    I was interested in whether it really was torture, and I was interested because this has become, I think, a generationally defining question for us. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, solitary confinement was very unusual. Today, we have over 50,000 people in long-term solitary confinement in our American prisons now. You know, in states like New York —- it’s across every -— red and blue states. We have — New York has over eight percent of its prison population in long-term solitary confinement. A large proportion — some think a majority — are not there for violent offenses, either. It’s a method of control that we regard as increasingly routine. And so, what my puzzle was, is it torture, or is it not?

    And what I looked back to was the experience and the literature, which is much richer, around what hostages and prisoners of war — our Vietnam veterans, for example — experienced when they went through solitary confinement. And what’s found is that people experience solitary confinement as even more damaging than physical torture. Vietnam veterans who received physical torture — John McCain had two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, had his legs and arm broken during his imprisonment, but described the two-and-a-half years that he spent in solitary as being the most cruel component and the most terrifying aspect of what he went under.


    • Scott Lemieux

      The Guwande article is a must-read.

      • Barry Freed

        Why not update the post with a link to it then?

  • dr_eats_babies

    A friend of mine made a short film about the way solitary confinement — in its stricter forms — can be used as a kind of punishment without trial. The film is not very loosely based on the treatment of B. Manning. It’s worth watching. Really!

    Here’s a link: http://preventionofinjury.com/

    • DocAmazing

      Oh, wait, we need to hear about how Manning had it pretty good.

  • Jim Van Norman

    My wife and I are psychiatrists. She does a fair amount of consulting with US DOJ on prison issues. Most commonly, folks with psychiatric illness are put in ad seg (solitary) for what is perceived as protection by correctional staff. They also serve disproportionally longer sentences and are rarely offered community based supervision. We are just making it worse.

  • Tcaalaw

    Maybe I have an overinflated view of the risks of physical violence in prison, but I’ve always thought that if, somehow, I ended up going to prison, I would beg to serve my entire sentence in solitary confinement. I’d rather go crazy by myself than get raped on a daily basis.

    • Halloween Jack

      Well, that’s like asking if you’d rather have your eyeballs torn out or your testicles torn out. It’s not impossible to make a prison where you could have your own room and still socialize with other prisoners in an environment that would make sexual assault extremely unlikely.

    • PSP

      This reminds me of a local attorney’s war story regarding the client who complained that he had been kept in solitary despite violating no rules. He asked the attorney to get him moved to general population. The lawyer responded:

      “You are a 50 year old, chubby, jewish guy. Just why do you think they have you in solitary?”

  • DrDick

    Our whole prison system is a massive violation of human rights. This is obviously even worse than usual, but the whole thing is rotten.

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