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The Effects of Solitary Confinement


The effects of solitary confinement (i.e. isolation, segregation, supermax) on human beings has been debated and studied for years. Appelbaum pointed out that even though the consequences of solitary confinement are well-known the United States has increased the number of inmates placed in solitary confinement dramatically (Appelbaum 2015, n.p.). The consequences inmates placed in solitary confinement face, based on the research of many professionals in the field of psychology as well as neuroscience are the following: psychological effects, social and emotional effects, self-harm, suicide, mental illness and many other. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 found that long term isolation or solitary confinement can create emotional damage as well as “create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and assaultive or anti-social behavior, and lead to decreases in physical health and functioning” (Appelbaum 2015, p. 18).

Psychological and Physiological effects:           

In Bonta and Gendreau’s (1990) quantitative literature review, they conclude the evidence shows that solitary confinement does not pose health risks, rather that the risk is more so in how the inmate adapts to incarceration. On the other hand, Appelbaum, concludes that  “Physiological effects of isolation in humans and other social animal species include increased sympathetic tone; activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; altered glucocorticoid regulation; decreased inflammatory control, immunity and sleep quality” (Applebaum 2015, p. 17).

Bonta and Gendreau (1990) also concluded that as far as the physical health of inmates in correctional facilities are concerned, there is a great benefit for the prisoner to be kept from living in a high-risk manner in the outside community. In regards to this conclusion, there is no empirical evidence to supporting the theory that the inmate benefits from having being kept locked up. Bonta and Gendreau (1990)  make a claim rather than supporting their statement with proof. Due to their lack of evidence, when it comes to an inmate benefiting from being incarcerated, rather than being free, we cannot take Bonta and Gendreau’s statement as reliable research or facts.

In contrast, a publication made by C. Haney states that the “Empirical research on solitary and supermax-like confinement has consistently and unequivocally documented the harmful consequences of living in these kinds of environments” (Haney 2003, p. 130). Haney goes on to show the evidence and empirical research that supports his claim that solitary confinement and supermax prisons produce psychological pain and damage those confined emotionally. Haney lists the types of psychological and emotional pain that solitary confinement causes: appetite and sleep disturbances, anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations, self-mutilations, withdrawal, cognitive dysfunction, a sense of impending emotional breakdown and hopelessness.


Appelbaum, K. L. (2015). American psychiatry should join the call to abolish solitary confinement. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 43(4), 406.

Bonta, J., & Gendreau, P. (1990). Reexamining the cruel and unusual punishment of prison life. Law and Human Behavior, 14(4), 347-372.

Casella, J., Ridgeway, J., & Shourd, S. (2016). Hell is a very small place: Voices from solitary confinement.

Cloud, D. H., Drucker, E., Browne, A., & Parsons, J. (2015). Public health and solitary confinement in the united states. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 18-26.

Franke, K. L. (2014). Qualitative phenomenological study of inmates’ lived experience in a supermax program.

Haney, C. (2003). Mental health issues in long-term solitary and “supermax” confinement. Crime & Delinquency, 49(1), 124-156.

Mears, D. P. (2013). Supermax prisons. Criminology & Public Policy, 12(4), 681-719.

Reiter, K. A. (2012). Parole, snitch, or die: California’s supermax prisons and prisoners, 1997-2007. Punishment & Society, 14(5), 530-563.

Schlanger, M. (2013). Prison segregation: Symposium introduction and preliminary data on racial disparities. Michigan Journal of Race and Law, 18. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://ssrn.com/abstract=2237979

Smith, P. N., Wolford-Clevenger, C., Mandracchia, J. T., & Jahn, D. R. (2013). An exploratory factor analysis of the Acquired Capability for Suicide Scale in male prison inmates. Psychological Services, 10(1), 97-105.

Yang, S., Kadouri, A., Révah-Lévy, A., Mulvey, E. P., & Falissard, B. (2009). Doing time: A qualitative study of long-term incarceration and the impact of mental illness. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32(5), 294-303.

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