Opposition Mounts Against Solitary Confinement

This week, the state of California reached a settlement with a group of inmates in the state’s prison system who have been in solitary confinement for over a decade. Fighting for the settlement has been a long and arduous battle, prompting hunger strikes and fierce disagreement along with the legal battles.

More work is still to come, as the ruling is not official until a public hearing on the matter takes place, and a district judge approves it. But should the rights of prisoners prevail, close to 2,000 individuals could be released from solitary confinement in California.

What exactly does solitary confinement consist of? There isn’t a standard practice exactly, but frequently it consists of 22 to 23 hours a day in a single room, which is windowless and constantly illuminated. Contact with guards and other prisoner is significantly limited. TV and radio are completely absent, and visits and communication with the outside world is drastically reduced.

Some individuals are forced to live in these conditions for over three decades.

In California alone, it’s estimated that around 4,500 inmates are currently in solitary confinement. Some believe there may be more than 80,000 prisoners held in solitary across the United States’s prison system.

Defenders of the practice tend to argue that it is a valuable tool for cracking down on gang violence in prisons. In response to efforts to reduce or eliminate the use of solitary confinement, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (a law enforcement union) issued a statement that read:

Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis. It is a fact that many of our corrections facilities have become more overcrowded with a higher proportion of violent offenders than ever before, and any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or resides in these institutions.

We should take the claims of those who represent prison staff seriously, as they surely have intimate knowledge of the working conditions. But we should also be very skeptical about any arguments they produce to discourage stricter regulations on their use of force.

Such institutions frequently resist change, particularly when it comes from an external source. And we can imagine that, were prison guards allowed to use whips or beatings to keep inmates in line, there would be huge opposition to that as well. Often, reforms to cruel practices are initially dismissed as naive, but subsequently accepted as the new normal.

In this case, it’s clear that reform is desperately needed. Solitary confinement is frequently used to counter gang violence within prisons. Tattoos and certain possessions could be perceived as evidence of membership in a gang. Inmates would then only be allowed to leave solitary confinement by becoming an informant (though this practice has stopped), a move which could turn perilous when the individual is reintegrated with the general population.

Unfortunately, many of the people who are thrown into solitary confinement for behavioral issues in fact are experiencing mental health issues. If these mental health issues were in fact the cause of the initial incident which led to imprisonment, it might be the case that these individuals belong in a hospital rather than a prison. To then subject these suffering individuals to even greater suffering through social isolation is profoundly unjust.

Moreover, the literature on the effects of solitary confinement suggests that this form of discipline is hardly likely to improve behavior, especially among those with mental illness. Solitary confinement is in fact associated with increased depression, paranoia, anxiety, psychosis and self-harm. These effects belie the label of “corrections” that we give to a system that fails to correct and only causes more damage.

There are other techniques for controlling gang activity and violence in prison that need not be so punitive. Separate units with reduced interaction may be necessary for some particularly dangerous individuals, and there are many other privileges that can be removed as punishments. But more and more writers and thinkers are beginning to see social interaction as a fundamental human right, just like food shelter or water, which we shouldn’t deny even to the most hardened offenders.

With the Association of State Correctional Administrators issuing a statement calling for sharp limits on the use of solitary confinement, especially over an extended period, there appears to be significant progress in opposing and restricting this outdated and destructive practice. UN experts have long been critical of solitary confinement, particularly when it lasts over 15 days. As awareness grows about the massive abuses of the American prison system, this particularly heinous and excessive form of punishment is likely to face increasing scrutiny.

Photo Credit: JMiller291


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

There are several reasons why someone would be in solitary confinement. They are usually a danger to others or themselves. There is another reason too, they are there sometimes for their own protection. If they have hurt a child, other inmates will kill them if they find out. Or a cop, etc. will have to be protected also.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago


Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper2 years ago


Sue H.
Sue H2 years ago

I think that solitary as a "time out" is sometimes necessary, but decades in a cement box is cruelty. If deemed dangerous or mentally ill, the facility needs to create separate housing that may be minimalist but not inhumane.

Miriam O.

Thanks for sharing! Interesting!

Neville B.
Neville B2 years ago

Too big and unknown a subject for me to write intelligently on specifics, but side-stepping wrongful imprisonment, physical safety, etc., and that mental health issues as part of crime should be dealt with as mental health issues, and not just crime, I believe that people who have unjustly violated other's rights forfeit some of those themselves, and I wonder if solitary confinement (with windows and day/night cycles) would be a good thing, by preventing violence and networking. I accept that it's dehumanising over time so (if there's any way of gauging by how much) I would make sentences correspondingly shorter, which would also help with over-crowding and reintegrating. Overly-long periods however (though I don't know the thresholds) are surely going to cause mental/emotional illness, so there would be a maximum period depending on individual cases, and the two systems would operate at the same time. Just a thought.

Marc P.
Marc P2 years ago

Dominic C.: More succinctly, solitary confinement can be used humanely. What is happening now is that the term "Solitary Confinement" actually means "Total Isolation." Inmates in Solitary are tossed into a bare cell with NOTHING and the solid steel door is slammed on them. The lights are lefty on 24 hours a day. Some of these cells have a shower nozzle on the wall and a drain in the floor and that is turned on every other day for 10 minutes so the inmate can shower without ever coming in contact with another human being. An inmate MIGHT be given a book to read once in a while - If they are lucky. If you locked up even the kindest of dogs in these conditions sooner or later it would come out snarling and snapping. If we MUST put inmates in solitary they should have a TV, and a radio. They should have books to read and an opportunity to talk to other people, and a variety of foods to keep them interested.

Dominic C.
Dominic C2 years ago

Solitary confinement is an important tool in the administration of correction of violent inmates. However, it has to be used sparingly and not used as a tool for coercion and long term punishment. There are limits to every strategy and their uses are always on the moderation and never run on the maximum. A good example is a machine, if you used a machine at the maximum and no 'care' and/or 'maintenance' is/are accorded with it, you will find that the machine's life will expire more quickly and breakdowns can occur more frequently.Similarly, if an inmate is made to rot in detention in solitary confinement, chances are you find an inmate in a 'vegetative' state and no longer able to fit into mainstream society (we are talking about the general population in prison). He or she will only find 'solitadom' as a fitness for his or her condition. I do not object its use but solitary confinement use has to be advised by medical practitioners - especially prison psychiatrists.