Solitary confinement, often referred to as restrictive housing, is the isolation of prisoners who are deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Inmates are completely isolated for 22-24 hours a day, with virtually no human contact. Oftentimes, the only human interaction these inmates receive is a hand pushing food through a door slot. The topic of restrictive housing became an issue because of its intense psychological effects, the ethical implications, and overuse of the practice. The exposure of the practice in recent years has sparked calls to either reform or proscribe solitary confinement. An increasing amount of prisons are participating in improved methods of administering the practice, proving that change is both effective and possible. Solitary confinement should only be implemented as a last resort and limited to the briefest term possible. The practice of long-term isolation leaves prisoners with staggering psychological effects that often leave them unable to reintegrate back into society. With reform, prisoners will no longer have to endure long periods, sometimes years, of isolation. Since its creation in the early 19th century, restrictive housing has served only as a breeding ground for unnecessary expense, psychological problems, and indignation. Solitary confinement should be reformed to control unruly prisoners for limited amounts of time, and focus on rehabilitation rather than excessive punishment.

Origins of Long-Term Isolation

Solitary confinement was originally invented on the Quaker notion that if prisoners were left alone, they would utilize the time to repent and reflect. However, since its first experiment in 1829, it has proven ineffective of its original intentions. Instead of inmates repenting or rehabilitating, they are cut off from interaction and dehumanized. When vulnerable inmates are treated as less than human, it encourages them to act as less than human. They become unable to function in the real world. The home of the original experiment, Eastern State Penitentiary, observed the intense deterioration of prisoners’ wellbeing and subsequently let the practice fade out. But other corrections facilities had adopted the practice and consequently, in the 90’s, the first supermax prisons rolled out. Supermax prisons are designed to be entire facilities dedicated to solitary confinement blocks. These practices have little to no oversight, oftentimes meaning a prison guard can put a prisoner in solitary confinement without approval from a higher-up. Terms and placement into a solitary block usually stem from prisoners ignoring orders from guards, fighting with other inmates, or it could even be something like talking to a gang-affiliated prisoner. Nowadays, prison guards often excessively rely on restrictive housing as a disciplinary tool, in order to control the prisoner population. This is the line between complete proscription and reformation. For the general prison population, segregation should still be implemented to separate especially violent inmates.

Psychological Effects

Long-term solitary confinement is extremely damaging to the mental health of prisoners, especially those with mental illness. The effects of long term isolation include difficulty with thinking or memory processes, periods of intense anxiety, and hallucinations. Humans are social creatures and should not be subjected to these unreasonable measures for such lengthy periods. The effects of the practice are said to be similar to those of torture. Long-term isolation can leave long lasting marks on inmates who hope to reintegrate into society. The trauma is an obstacle for those who want to hold a job, effectively contribute to society, or foster social relationships. Unfortunately, prisons sometimes rely on restrictive housing to contain prisoners with mental illness, but the isolation only exacerbates their conditions. Even the most mentally stable of prisoners might experience states of paranoia, delusions, or panic. The humiliation of this practice can even drive some prisoners to kill. California inmate James Robertson had been in solitary confinement for years, and eventually strangled another inmate. He says his motivation behind the killing was to escape solitary and be put on death row instead.

Legislative Action

The fight for prisoner rights is spearheaded by legislators, advocates, and organizations like the ACLU. In 2016, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for imprisoned juveniles. In September of 2016, Sen. Richard Durbin introduced the Solitary Confinement Reform Act. This bill intends to constrain solitary confinement to the briefest term and the least prohibitive conditions practicable. It has not been passed yet, but has been introduced and discussed on the Senate floor. The bill supports the reformation, not proscription, of solitary confinement. Legislation is primarily focused on ending long-term solitary, not a complete ban. Unfortunately, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country, and not only is extensive restrictive housing ineffective, it’s a direct attack on human rights. It would be effective if it is used as a limited disciplinary measure, such as giving violent inmates solitary terms for a couple days.

Efforts to Reform

Few experiments of reformed solitary practices have been carried out, but the movement is gaining momentum. What specifically should change about restrictive housing? Key principles for successful reformation include no sensory deprivation tactics and more social and outside exposure. Ideally, if reforms were established, reformers such as third-party organizations would have to provide oversight to corrections facilities. That would ensure that guards would not revert to overuse of the practice. Some argue that solitary confinement should be completely banned, but the practice wouldn’t be detrimental if implemented as an emergency measure and for shorter periods. With social advocacy, resistance to change is dissolving and more prisons are opting to practice new restrictive housing tactics. Organizations, individuals, and legislators all have the power to ameliorate the issue. For example, you can raise awareness for criminal justice reform by talking to local representatives, speaking out at your school, and educating yourself. There is an amazing opportunity for volunteers presented by SolitaryWatch called Lifelines for Solitary. It provides communication outreach to the tens of thousands of inmates in solitary by pairing them with a volunteer who sends letters. Solitary confinement as it stands is a cruel and inhumane practice, but if action is taken, we can ensure that human rights are protected.


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