Center on Sentencing and Corrections

The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement: A Systematic Critique

The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement: A Systematic Critique

Craig Haney. “The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement: A Systematic Critique.” Crime and Justice 47, no. 1 (2018): 365-416.

Research findings on the psychological effects of solitary confinement have been strikingly consistent since the early nineteenth century. Studies have identified a wide range of frequently occurring adverse psychological reactions that commonly affect prisoners in isolation units. The prevalence of psychological distress is extremely high. Nonetheless, use of solitary confinement in the United States vastly increased in recent decades. Advocates defend its use, often citing two recent studies to support claims that isolation has no significant adverse psychological effects, including even on mentally ill people. Those studies, however, are fundamentally flawed, their results are not credible, and they should be disregarded. Critically and comprehensively analyzing the numerous flaws that compromise this recent scholarship underscores the distinction between methodological form and substance, the danger of privileging quantitative data irrespective of their quality, and the importance of considering the fraught nature of the prison context in which research results are actually generated. Solitary confinement has well-documented adverse effects. Its use should be eliminated entirely for some groups of prisoners and greatly reduced for others.

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Keywords: solitary confinement, prison isolation, restrictive housing, segregation, conditions of confinement, segregated housing and mental health