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Solitary confinement is a special form of imprisonment in which a prisoner is isolated from any human contact, though often with the exception of members of prison staff. It is sometimes employed as a form of punishment beyond incarceration for a prisoner and has been cited as an additional measure of protection from the inmate or is given for violations of prison regulations. It is also used as a form of protective custody and to implement a suicide watch.

Solitary confinement is colloquially referred to in American English as "the hotbox", "the hole", "lockdown", "SCU" (Solitary Confinement Unit), "AdSeg" (Administrative Segregation), the "SHU" (pronounced "shoe")—an acronym for "security housing unit", or "the pound"; and in British English as "the block" or "the cooler".[1][2] In Canada they are known as a Special Handling Unit.


Issues of mental health and insanity due to solitary confinement and other extreme forms of isolation date back to the 19th century and have been broadly researched by a variety of academics and scholars. Historically, Quakers and Calvinists could both be seen in supporting solitary confinement. In 1818, New York reformer and Friend, Thomas Eddy, lobbied for inmate labor and solitary confinement in place of other forms of punishment such as hanging. Shortly after, New York decided to include solitary confinement and inmate labor into their penal system. Some of these early prison experiments indicated that prisoners may prefer the lash over solitary, because it did not induce permanent damage and would not incite madness like solitary confinement did.[3] Mental instability has been linked to solitary confinement since as far back as the 1860s. Prison records from the Denmark institute during 1870-1920 illustrate that staff noticed inmates were exhibiting signs of mental illnesses while in isolation, revealing that this persistent problem has been around for decades.[4]


The practice is used when a prisoner is considered dangerous to oneself or to others, is suspected of organizing or being engaged in illegal activities outside of the prison, or, in the case of a prisoner such as a pedophile or witness, is at a high risk of being harmed by another inmate or inmates.[citation needed] The latter example is a form of protective custody. Solitary confinement is also the norm in Supermax prisons where prisoners who are deemed dangerous or of high risk are held.

Solitary Confinement in JuvenilesEdit

Solitary confinement is also a practice used on juveniles in government institutions like jails and prisons, although the information available for its use on juveniles is limited. In October 2006, approximately 2,658 facilities in the United States held 92,093 juvenile offenders on the day of the census.[5] Juveniles are held in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the United States, often for days, weeks, months, or even years in order to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the youth held there.[6] One of such institutions for juveniles is Rikers Island in New York City. The New York City Department of Corrections reported that in fiscal year 2012 more than 14.4 percent of all adolescents in detained at Rikers Island between the ages of 16 and 18 were held in at least one period of solitary confinement while detained.[7] The average length of time young people spent in solitary confinement at Rikers Island was 43 days. More than 48 percent of adolescents at this institution have diagnosed mental health problems.[8]

Effects and Access to CareEdit

The effects of solitary confinement on juveniles can be highly detrimental to their growth. The isolation of solitary confinement can cause anguish, provoke serious mental and physical health problems, and work against rehabilitation for juveniles.[9] Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.[6] Solitary confinement can worsen both short- and long-term psychological and physical problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop.[10] The ACLU and Human Rights Watch created a report that incorporated the testimony of some juvenile inmates. Many interviews described how their placement in solitary confinement exacerbated the stresses of being in jail or prison. Many spoke of harming themselves with staples or razors, having hallucinations, losing touch with reality, and having thoughts of or attempting suicide - all this while having very limited access to health care.[11]

Juveniles in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.[12] The ACLU and the Human Rights Watch have made recommendations at both a State and Federal level regarding their lack of access to medical services etc.


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.[13]

Solitary confinement in the United StatesEdit

In the US Federal Prison system, solitary confinement is known as the Special Housing Unit (SHU),[14] pronounced /ˈʃ/. California's prison system also uses the abbreviation SHU, but it stands for Security Housing Units.[15] In other states, it is known as the Special Management Unit (SMU).[16]

Current estimates of the number of inmates held in solitary confinement are difficult to determine, though generally the minimum held at any given time has been determined to be 20,000, with estimates as high as 80,000.[17]

Solitary Confinement in CaliforniaEdit

When California opened its first “adjustment center,” the goal was to return prisoners to the mainline prison population and ultimately to a society through an enrichment program of psychological and social services.[18] However, the plan was never executed. In 1983, George Deukemejian was elected as the California governor and during his time, he formed what was then the state’s newest prison – a massive, windowless “security housing unit” (SHU). SHU was intended to segregate over a thousand prisoners from the rest of the prison system through isolation. Deukemejian boasted that the Pelican Bay State Prison was a “state-of-the-art prison that will serve as a model for the rest of the nation...”.[18]

The prisoners are kept confined to their cells almost twenty-three hours a day and all forms of human contact through refined locking and monitoring systems are minimized. Pelican Bay SHU was one of the first visible “super-maximum security” facilities and thus it attracted lots of media attention.[18] Those opposing the conditions of California’s “supermax” resulted in the federal court criticizing certain features of the prison but left the basic regimen of segregation and isolation largely intact.[18]

One of the policies of supermax confinement among other policies is designed to increase punishment by removing gang members from the mainline population and subject them to solitary confinement, whether it is for a set amount of time or an indefinite duration. In a recent study, it noted that the California Department of corrections has implemented ways to fix their alleged gang problem, such as using ‘confidential informants,’ segregating gang members, intercepting gang communications, setting up task forces to monitor and track gang members, locking up gang leaders in high security prisons, and ‘locking down’ entire institutions.[18]

These facilities, supermax prisons, were originally designed to contain and control the worst criminals and those who did not adhere to the rules of prisons, aka “the worst of the worst”.[19] As of 2001, the count of inmates in administrative segregation in California was 5,982 representing an 80.2% change over time, but this number is not quite correct due to deficient files provided.[20] Increasingly, the practice of using solitary confinement long term, instead of the intended three-month period, in the supermax prisons as inmate management has become the norm.[19] The selected inmates, who wear jumpsuits that differentiate them from the general population, will spend around 23 hours a day alone in a cell where they are offered very little and fully monitored as is procedure at Pelican Bay State Prison which is one the largest supermax prisons in the United States.[19] In order to be sent to Pelican Bay, the inmate has either committed murder, assault, riots, threatening staff or fellow inmates, and even gang affiliation which must be validated by the prison staff.[19]

There are 22 SHU units of Pelican Bay which include 132 eight-cell pods that are lit by heavy Plexiglass skylights enclosed by steel cell doors.[19] The inmates are provided with a concrete slab as a bed, a toilet, small shelf, and a concrete stool with no windows in an 80 sq. foot space.[19] California prisons allow for assault rifles in the control rooms which are situated in the middle of the semicircle of its pods.[19] These control rooms add further isolation for the inmates because it eliminates the need for face-to-face interaction between staff and inmate, and their food plates are pushed through a small slot in the door.[19] The only form of exercise allowed is once a day for an hour and a half where they’re taken to a 26 by 20 foot area surrounded by 20 foot high cement walls and subjected to strip searches before and after the allotted time.[19] Only one prisoner from each pod can move at a time and must be handcuffed, which are also attached to a belly chain, plus cuffed at the ankles before they can leave.[19] No lethal force has been used against fighting inmates in the SHU. Inmates who have made the decision to debrief, are placed into debriefing pods while the investigation into their claims are validated.[21] Once their claims have been validated, they are placed into the Transitional Housing Unit (THU) which is located in facility B building 3 (B-3). Those inmates in the THU are separated from the General Population inmates by staggering their yard times, visiting times, education and law library times.

In San Quentin State Prison, the violence rates were still high in the 1980s despite the similar lockdowns and procedures of Pelican Bay because these prisoners use the small windows out of lockdown to either harm themselves or others.[22] They typically will try not to harm themselves while in the psychiatric hospital ward either, but they will plan out while in lockdown until they can see their plan through.[22] However even as they near their release dates, they are moved to “prerelease programs” out of the SHU which are successful with some prisoners, but it causes most others to become even more uncontrollable and unpredictable due to their mental states that aren’t properly cared for or screened.[22]

In May 2012, California's prison system faced a lawsuit from the Center for Constitutional Rights and a group of California attorneys for the use of long terms of solitary confinement, some lasting for decades.[23]

Disciplinary Segregation in New YorkEdit

Since the 1980s, New York City Department of Correction have increased the use of segregation as a discipline and management tool. In effect, segregation is a secondary sentence imposed by the correctional facility, which is usually unrelated to the conviction for which the person is incarcerated for.[24] There is nothing special about a small confined space where individuals are subject to no outside interaction with the rest of the prison population or the rest of the world. Inmates called solitary confinement “the box,” or “the cage” summarizing the physical features that a place like this is, which ultimately is torture. There are high rates of use of solitary confinement in New York when compared to other U.S. states. Within the New York prison system, solitary confinement is frequently imposed for nonviolent, “trivial prisoner offenses.” Usually the common misconception is that solitary confinement is a punishment of last resort, reserved for inmates who present a threat of violence or escape.[25] Inmates that are released from solitary confinement go through a “transitional unit” but failure in the program results in their return to solitary confinement. Overall, most of the inmates fail and return to solitary confinement.[26] The reality is, especially in New York, that this is a punishment of first resort. New York has the highest rate of “disciplinary segregation” in the country, making solitary confinement a regular every day action among the prison. Although prisons nationwide have decreased use of solitary confinement, the New York City Department of Correction expanded its capacity by 27 percent in 2011 and another 44 percent in 2012, according to the NYC Jails Action Coalition. Although the DOC housed 1,000 more inmates in 1990 than it does today, its’ jails have more solitary cells now. Due to this the city is topping the charts of municipalities with a high rate of solitary confinement.[27] On any given day, there are about 4,500 men, women, and children in some form of isolated confinement in New York State prisons. This is not including New York City’s jails, which are run under a separate system, where those in solitary confinement reach close to 1,000 or more.[25] There is a sense of struggle when it comes to the development of human rights consciousness and where the fight for this should be taking place. New Yorkers may be unconscious of the torture in their own backyards and that their living with “black sites.” [25]

A new bill was introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm would require the Department of Correction to post a monthly report on its website about punitive segregation. It would also require data on the number of people in punitive segregation, the length of time in this setting, the nature of the infractions, age, mental health, if they were prescribed medication or moved to a hospital, violence against others and inmate requests.[27] Many are supportive of this bill with the goal being to make jail facilities safer for inmates and correction officers.Individuals who are released and experience solitary confinement go back into their communities and reoffend at higher rates than general population prisoners causing them to land back into prison. Policy changes that will reduce the use and long-term impact of segregation will benefit not only the staff and prisoners in these units but also ultimately the well-being of facilities, systems, and the community.[24] Councilman Dromm also issued a separate resolution seeking to end the practice of the time owed. For example, an inmate, because of good behavior or other reasons, might only have served 100 of his or her 180-day sentence in solitary and then was released. A few years or even decades later the person is rearrested. Under current rules he or she must complete those unserved 80 days in solitary. This resolution however is only a request since the Council does not have the authority to make the Department of Correction adhere.[27]

Solitary confinement in the UKEdit

Solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for prisoners in Europe was largely reduced or eliminated during the twentieth century.[28] In 2004, only 40 out of 75,000 inmates held in England and Wales were placed in solitary confinement cells.[29]



The effect of solitary confinement on mental health has been studied and discussed by psychiatrists since the 1930s.[30] According to psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a specialist in the area, inmates are more likely to under-report than to over-report its effects (i.e., "Some of the guys can't take it—not me"). Grassian has found that common effects of solitary confinement include increased sensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, and other changes in perception, as well as cognitive problems including memory loss, difficulty thinking, and impulsiveness.[31] These effects may together constitute a unique syndrome, sometimes called "SHU syndrome".[32] Others term it "Social-Sensory Deprivation Syndrome".[33] Grassian's 1983 study of inmates at Walpole State Prison is credited with identifying (duration and degree of) sensory deprivation as an important variable in mental health outcomes.[30]

Craig Haney built upon Grassian's findings and found the following symptoms present among inmates housed in SHUs: anxiety, headaches, chronic tiredness, trouble sleeping, impending nervous breakdown, perspiring hands, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, trembling hands and nightmares.[34] Haney also found that suicidal thoughts, perceptual distortions, chronic depression, emotional flatness, violent fantasies, social withdrawal and ruminations were present among these inmates a short time after admittance into the SHU.

Some have argued that evidence for a unique syndrome is insufficient and accused its proponents of bias because they advocate for prisoners in legal cases relating to solitary confinement.[35] A study conducted by the Colorado Department of Corrections found that solitary confinement did not undermine mental health, and suggested that inmates in isolation often had mental health problems that should not be attributed to the isolation itself.[36]


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. Therefore, women are more likely to become depressed than men, because they do not feel supported by their respective families outside of prison. However, men are more likely to become frustrated, and therefore more mentally unstable when keeping up with family outside of prisons.[37] 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.[38]


Solitary confinement has been criticized in specific instances as well as for its overall effects. Despite the debate and literature about the psychological effects solitary confinement has on prisoners, the government and prison administrators have very few intentions of ending solitary confinement or security housing units.[39] Solitary confinement becomes a social issue because inmates will lose important skills to survive in society; “some will lose the ability impose internal organization on their daily routines, jeopardizing their prison adjustment. Others will suffer the loss of emotional control...”.[39] Most of the inmates in secure housing units are minorities and the psychological effects that solitary confinement has on them will ensure that they may become “functionally excluded from living socially productive lives”.[39] Because most of the inmates in solitary confinement are minorities,[39] the issue of racialization of space and social/racial justice is contended in the prison system's use of solitary confinement.


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."[40]

Solitary confinement has been traditionally used as a behavioral reform of isolating prisoners physically, emotionally and mentally in order to control and change inmate behavior. Recently arrived inmates are more likely to violate prison rules than their inmate counterparts and thus are more likely to be put in solitary confinement. Additionally, individual attributes and environmental factors combine to increase an inmate's likelihood of being put into solitary confinement.[41]


Solitary confinement is considered to be a form of psychological torture[28] when the period of confinement is longer than a few weeks or is continued indefinitely.[42] The case of Thomas Silverstein has been somewhat criticized. Silverstein has spent the last Template:Age years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement as a result of him murdering a prison guard in Marion, Illinois. He is thought to have been in solitary confinement longer than any other prisoner in the world. Silverstein is currently incarcerated at the Federal Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado. The International Red Cross has expressed concern of ‘significant problems’ with U.S. confinement techniques, and U.S. prison policies have faced mounting legal challenges.[43] America's detention system is far below the basic minimum standards for treatment of prisoners under international law.[43] The United States' increasingly harsh treatment of its civilian prison population in maximum-security prisons ("supermax facilities") nationwide has caused an international human rights concern.[43] America’s solitary confinement practices contravene international treaty law, violate established international norms, and do not represent sound foreign policy.[43]

Negative psychological effects have been documented,[44] leading one 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."[45]


Misuse of solitary confinement has been widely controversial. 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.[46] In the prison-industrial complex itself, reports of solitary confinement as punishment in work labor prisons have also summoned much criticism.[47] 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.[48] 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.[49]

Opponents of solitary confinement hold that it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment[50] and torture[51] because 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[52] that may lead to certain mental illnesses such as depression, permanent or semi-permanent changes to brain physiology,[53] an existential crisis,[31][54][55][56] and death.[51]

International PerceptionEdit

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Please see the discussion on the talk page.

The International community’s approach toward the treatment of prisoners has evolved into a formal recognition of basic prisoners’ rights, setting out minimum standards and prohibitions applicable to prisoners and prison conditions.[57] Although great strides have been made in the formation of this international body of law, prisoners remain a vulnerable population. Since prisons are by nature out of sight, and prisoners are outcasts, they become easy targets for continued human rights abuses even in countries that generally respect human rights.[57] Solitary confinement and prolonged segregation in U.S prisons fail to abide by either the international standards for prison management or internationally established protections for prisoner rights.[58] The United States holds itself to a lesser standard than other industrialized nations, determining that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S Constitution provides adequate protection against punishments compromising prisoners’ human dignity.[58] International law and its various international treaties and covenants-the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among others, contain the prohibition of torture.[59] International courts interpreting these documents have determined four elements of torture: severity, intent, objective, and officiality.[59] Use of solitary sonfinement in the U.S contravenes international law, fulfilling all four elements of torture.[59] International law also requires an in depth periodic review of a prisoner’s long term solitary confinement to consider the prisoner’s behavior while in prison.[60] The Committee Against Torture, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have made it clear that solitary confinement should be an exceptional measure of limited duration that is subject to strict judicial review when applied and prolonged.[60]

Solitary confinement of youthEdit

Some oppose specifically the solitary confinement of young people, arguing that this practice is particularly harmful and unjust. A 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch contests that solitary confinement can traumatize young people and deny them access to special services necessary for rehabilitation.[61]

Access to health careEdit

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.[62] 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.[63]


Novak v. BetoEdit

In 1971, inmates challenged the constitutionality of the treatment that they were receiving in their Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) facility.[64] Specifically, they asked whether the TDC regulation banning all inmate assistance in the preparation of writs of habeas corpus and other legal work is unconstitutional. They also argued that the conditions of solitary confinement as administered in Texas as constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court found against the inmates held in the Texas department of corrections on all of the issues presented: the legal assistance regulation that was being reviewed held no merit, and the treatment that was being administered in the Texas solitary confinement sector was not unconstitutional.[64]

Ford v. Board of New Jersey state prisonEdit

Appellant Ford alleged that he had been confined in solitary in the New Jersey State Prison at Trenton.[65] While he was in the solitary confinement section, he claims that he was exposed to conditions including (but not limited to) having no access to a wash bowl or running water and was therefore not able to maintain himself hygienically. He claims to have only had been allowed to shower once every 5th day at the discretion of the officer in charge.[65] The cell was said to have never been cleaned while he resided inside and therefore a stench lingered in the unit.[65] As for food, Ford says that he was allowed “4 slices of bread and a pint of water 3 times daily and one ‘full’ meal every third day.” [65] In this case, it was decided by the court that the conditions described by the appellant do not constitute cruel and/or unusual punishment.[65]


The use of long-term solitary confinement, along with other grievances, has triggered organized resistance from prisoners and advocacy groups in the United States. Prisoners in California and elsewhere have launched hunger strikes, citing cruel and unusual uses of solitary confinement as a major reason. Hundreds of prisoners in the United States, acting through the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, have in 2012 filed a petition against solitary confinement at the United Nations. The petition alleges that solitary confinement constitutes torture and should be addressed by the international community.[66] The 2013 California prisoner hunger strike saw approximately 29,000 prisoners protesting conditions.[67] Dr. Eisenman, a Art History professor and activist, who is involved in many “stop max” movements centered in Illinois, studies solitary confinement and explains its eventual decline.[68] Since the 1800s solitary confinement was practiced in the penitentiary systems and its implementation and popularity at various prisons grew throughout the centuries.[68] The practice of solitary confinement grew partly because of stigmatizing language used to refer to certain prisoners like ‘the worst of the worst,’ which became a form of “self-justifying the logic of torture”.[68] Yet, as the use of solitary confinement progressed, public discourse around solitary confinement transitioned from a legitimate form of punishment to torture.[68] Because many prisoners in solitary confinement suffered severe mental and physical illnesses, Eisenman describes that by the end of the nineteenth century “prisoner isolation and sensory deprivation were widely understood to be forms of torture”.[68] Therefore, human rights groups condemned the use of solitary confinement or ‘supermax’ systems, and national and local ‘stop max’ movements have initiated in America and worldwide to stop the use of solitary confinement.[68] There are many radical American organizations campaigning and advocating for prisoners' rights and against solitary confinement.[69]


Possible solution to alleviate mental health stress in prisons is the idea of cultural competence, where those working for the prison system adapt and acknowledge an inmate's culture to better adjust an inmate to jail. This does not currently exist in the prison system, but has been suggested to improve the experience of people of color in the prison system and those affected by solitary confinement. Restorative justice may be seen as an overall alternative to punitive measures.


The argument in favor of solitary confinement for those not already sentenced to it is generally to ensure a prisoner's protection and prison staff/guards. Earlier justifications for solitary confinement in the mid 20th century included protection for a prisoner whose sexual orientation, religion, or race were far too different and seen as vulnerable to attack from fellow inmates.

See alsoEdit


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