The Crime of Solitary Confinement

The following article is a Thesis I wrote a couple years ago on the psychological effects of solitary confinement or Administrative Segregation. Since this thesis was written and presented, very little has truly changed in this area of the criminal justice system. There has to be an overhaul of the whole system, from law enforcement to release (including community corrections or parole and probation). This article centers on the prison inside of the prison, or in cases of the supermax, the prison itself.

For crimes befitting punishment other than probation or house arrest, two things have to be remembered. The original system set up in this nation was meant for rehabilitation through things like work. Not places like the Tower of London or the French Bastille. The second thing to remember is this, a caged animal becomes one of two things, dead or dangerous. Another article will present better methods of punishment, rehabilitation, and the hopeful end of recidivism.

This is solely to try to enlighten and educate about the barbaric and tortuous treatment of forced solitude. If this pandemic has taught one thing, it has been that human interaction is a requirement for man. Like air to breathe and food/water to survive, human interaction is required for the mind to survive.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
― Bryan Stevenson

Solitary and Mental Health


Because of the closing of and increasing cost of mental health care in facilities (Levit & et al, 2008) and offender status while having mental health issues (Wachtler & Bagala, 2014), the prison system has become a warehouse for the mentally ill offender despite the increasing proof of harm caused by solitary confinement. Understandably, those with mental illness have a tendency to get into trouble. They are assessed, tried, convicted, sentenced, and then placed into a draconian system. In this system they get the bare minimum of aid or they get none at all.

While the solitary system was the correctional disposition at the beginning of the nation, it soon fell out of favor as a mainstay of the corrections system. It was not until the late 20th Century that solitary was once again the main way to deal with those that caused issues within the system. That is changing in some areas. Research is showing that mental health for those already with mental illness deteriorates further. It also is showing that those placed into solitary with no mental health issues are coming out of solitary with DSM-V qualified problems.

Policies are slowly being changed. But they have not changed with enough haste. The dignity of the offender with mental health issues is paramount to their recovery.

Keywords:  solitary, offender, confinement, administrative segregation, mental health, Pennsylvania Prison style, mental health facility, ethics, rights.


Historical American Solitary Confinement Overview: Eastern State Penitentiary was conceived by the Pennsylvania Prison Society because of the harsh and crowded conditions at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia (Woodham, 2008). The original concept of reform in the Pennsylvania system was set by the Quaker, William Penn who thought that imprisonment and hard labor would correct faulty thinking and action. After Penn had died, the system went from reform back to the punishments imposed by British rule. Changes to the Pennsylvania system were championed by Dr. Benjamin Rush, who became known as the father of American psychiatry (Leitch, 1978). His idea was that compassion and kindness should be used to aid those with mental illness.

The design of the prison was commissioned in 1829 by the architect John Haviland (Carr et al, 2002). He used Penn’s Quaker approach. The cell rows extended from a rounded central hub. It row consisted of 8’ by 10’ cells. It was built so that inmates had no contact and a reminder of God’s watchful eye, a skylight in the ceiling. The recreation yard was also designed to keep inmates from contact.

In some form or fashion, solitary has remained in the U.S. prison system. While strides have been made in reform through the two centuries of the prison system, solitary is still a recommended punishment for those deemed not able to be placed in general population. Today, most local jails, as well as state and federal prisons have a form of solitary confinement. The Supermax was born in 1983 (Smith, 2006). Started in the Marion Penitentiary of Illinois. In 1979, the prison was labeled a level 6 facility. After the murder of two correction officers in 1983, the prison went into lockdown and stayed there.

With the rise of hardline crimes and the drug culture starting in the 1980’s, the idea of get tough on crime became the cry of the masses. It was at this point that solitary confinement became normal for jails and prisons (Walker, 2016). Using the concept of William Penn combined with the supermax long term control of Marion, solitary confinement became the frontline of control for offenders that didn’t follow the rules. 

The latest numbers for the corrections system is based on 2011-2012 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015). Through data gathering, it was determined that 20% of prison inmates and 18% of jail inmates have spent a period of time (30 days or more) in solitary confinement. Those assigned to solitary confinement (segregation) were more likely young, educated with high school diploma or less, in need of mental health aid, or of a non-straight sexual persuasion. Most of the cases that rendered this punishment (25% in prisons and 28% in jails) were offenders that committed non-sexual violent offenses while in general population.

Historical Mental Health and Offending Overview: To understand the criminal element of a person, one concept is at the forefront of any discussion: Mens Rea. The full statement is ‘Actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea’, which is Latin for ‘An act does not make the person guilty, unless the mind be guilty’ (Jackson, 2015).  Mental health at the time of criminal action creates a link between legal concept and psychology (Taslitz, 2007). 

One of the psychological school of crime causation believes that crime is the result of inappropriate conditioning or from issues of mental malfunctions (Schmalleger, 2009). Followers of Freud determined that there are three ways the human psyche are precursors to criminal activity. The first is the superego (Lapsley & Stey, 2011). Since the superego keeps the person in check, the person with a faulty or weakened superego does not have the ability to stop his drive or impulses. 

The second comes from Freud’s theory of displacement (McLeod, 2009). This is the transference of one thing to another. In the television show ‘Bates Motel’, Norman Bates has issues with the manipulation of his mother. He transfers those feels to other females allowing him to become a serial killer. With every victim, he sees his actions against his mother not the victim.

The third is based on Thanatos the death instinct. Freud believed that the animate (human) desired to become inanimate (back to organic form). This leads people to perform self-destructive and illegal activity (Winer, 2011). Thanatos is of Greek origin (Thanatos, 2001). He is the opposite of Eros (life). 

Studies show that there are correlations between mental health issues and criminal activity. This found to be the case in poverty stricken areas (Draine et al, 2002). Poverty has been link to criminal activity and mental health issues. Although there seems to be a rise in offenders with mental health issues, this can be partially attributed to increasing arrest rates due to get tough legislation.  It must be noted that despite research initiatives, the link between mental health and crime is hair thin (Peterson, 2014). A study reported in Law and Human Behavior (2014) show that of 143 offenders with mental illness that were studied, only 17% of the 429 crimes committed by these individuals could be directly linked to their mental issues.

Current Link between Mental Health and Solitary Confinement: According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center (2012), from 2005 to 2010 there was a 14% reduction in beds for those with mental health issues. This placed hospital availability to the levels in 1850. In 13 states, the reduction was a closing of 25% or more of the facilities. This has correlated to higher incarceration rates of the mentally ill. The L.A. County Jail and New York’s Rikers Island have become the two largest inpatient mental health facilities (Panero, 2012).

In 1997, the PBS show Frontline did a report on the increased warehousing of the mentally ill in jails and prisons (Torrey, 1997). They determined that since the closing of mental health facilities, the new hospitals would be the corrections system. They found that recidivism rates among the mentally ill grew. Using the example of George Wooten from Denver, they found that he was a schizophrenic patient. Because of the lack of normal facilities, Mr. Wooten had been jailed over 100 times. 

According to a study by Shira Gordon (2014), it was found that a disproportionate number of mentally ill offenders are placed into solitary confinement because of a difficulty in understand or lack of ability to follow the rules of incarceration. In Washington, it was found that those with mental illness would be more likely to be placed into solitary by four times the rate than the regular population. 

Studies by the American Friends Service Committee (2012) show 2 things. The first is that Dr. Terry Kupers has placed the population of solitary confinement offenders with mental health issues at 50% or more. The second uses Arizona as a reference point. In Arizona they found that 26% of the male supermax inmates had mental health issues compared to less than 17% of general population facilities. They also found that mental illness actions tend to be misunderstood by correctional staff and lead to higher solitary confinement entries.

International Research: Because the mental health issue of offenders is not a sole American system issue, there have been many nations start to research the effects of solitary confinement on offenders with mental health issues. A study by the Irish Penal reform Trust has shown that the majority of those placed into solitary confinement may be deemed as having mental illness and be placed in solitary for an undetermined length of time (Bresnihan, 2002).

In contrast to most studies that show problems with solitary confinement, as study done in Sweden shows that solitary confinement as become a societal norm. Roddy Nilsson (2003) shows that Sweden determined to use solitary as the model of corrections. Although no statistics were included in the study as to mental health, he showed that solitary works in conjunction with social programming (parole). He shows that when solitary has been set to a control issue, incarceration has less issues of problems. This combined with the parole system, allows the punishment and reintegration as possible. 

A research project on solitary confinement was conducted by the Correctional Service of Canada (Zinger et al, 2001). In the study, a use of three facilities lasted sixty days with assessments at day one, day 30, and day 60. They found that while all of the participants in the study had mental health issues, there seemed to be no increase in those issues within the sixty day period.

Conditions of solitary confinement and the mentally ill

Treatment in Solitary Confinement: An article by Craig Haney (2003) showed how treatment happened for those placed into supermax and solitary confinement. In the facilities he researched he found two type of therapy treatment. The first is called cell frontal therapy. This is when the therapist counsels the inmate through the unopened door. 

The second is a face to face therapy session but has demeaning qualities. For those that choose this option, they undergo a strip search, are placed in multiple restraints and taken to the counselor’s office or a room designed with a cage. A third, but not frequently used technique, is called tele-psychiatry. This entails the use of images to assess and address the problems of the inmates from distant locations. Because these types of sessions are demeaning and show no help for the inmate, many do not ask for help or reject it when offered. These treatments also eliminate therapist/patient confidentiality.

An article by Patrick Dunne (2016) showed how inmates in solitary confinement are aided with mental health issues. One of the inmates at Valley State for Women shared that she was refused for PTSD and depression despite being required to take the medication. These inmates are also refused daily showers and general medical help. 

In a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2006) the levels of mental health treatment are low and vary. At the time of the report state inmates had a rate of 34% of mental health inmates getting some type of help. In the federal system that number fell to 24%. And the local level came in at just 17%. 

During incarceration, medication numbers for mental health issues are lower than the rates of overall, non-medicated aid. The state system had a medication rate of 27%. The federal rate was at 19%, and the local rate was 15%. In 2004, the rate of mental health prescriptions rose to 15%, up from 12% in 1997. The rates of mental health inmates is growing a more rapid pace than the treatments. This lag of aid to need ratio helps increase the numbers of solitary confinement for mental health related issues.

The majority of aid for mental health issues in confinement are medications, a quick ‘how are you feeling’ stop in front of the cell, or in some cases a quick one on one with a clinician (Metzner & Fellner, 2016). Psychologist lament at the lack of therapy, as most therapy style interventions have been lost through cost control measures and laws that require the inmate to be continuously locked up. The lack of funding for these interventions come from budgetary constraints of legislatures as well as the public outcry for punishment over rehabilitation.

A 2013 article by Christine Sarteschi mentions a couple of studies that mention problem areas in the corrections system. He noted that in a 2003 Human Rights Watch study, it was shown that inmates with mental health issues were neglected and were considered to be malingering. She also noted that a 2006 study from the Department of Justice looked into Taycheedah Correctional Facility for Women. They determined that the facility was understaffed in the mental health department. They found that there were only two part time psychiatrists for the whole facility population. Another study mentioned was done in a Michigan facility. They found that of the 618 inmates diagnosed with mental health issues, only 65% received any type of aid.

Rates of Mental Health Issues Higher in Solitary: A report in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia shows research resulted in finding higher mental health issue rates of inmates in solitary confinement than those in general population (Anderson et al, 2000). The study shows that psychiatric disorders were at 28% of inmates while general population rates were at 15%. While psychotic disorders were rare, adjustment and depressive disorders were the two highest issues recorded. The conclusion of the study determined that different stress levels gave different risers to different rates. This led the research team to conclude that solitary confinement caused more mental health hazards than did general population. 

While only 60% of those with mental health issues receive treatment while in the prison population, the rate for treatment while in solitary is even lower (Lee & Prabhu, 2015). Time spent in solitary can induce a type of psychiatric syndrome when none was present before. In the Rikers Island facility, between 2010 and 2013, 7.3% of the inmate population was placed into solitary confinement. 

While that is a small percentage of the full population count at the facility, it is overshadowed by the numbers of reported issues of self-harm. One-thousand acts of self-harm had occurred in that time period. The majority (53.3%) of those acts were committed by an individual within the solitary system. Offenders placed into solitary confinement, even once, are 6.9 times more likely to commit self-harm than the general population offenders (Kaba et al, 2014).

Another interesting note is the juvenile rates within the research. The highest growing demographics of incarceration and solitary is the juvenile rate for both male and female offenders. Many mental health issues occur in the earlier years for males (17-21) than in females (25-29). Since their minds are still learning to work appropriately, it is no surprise to find that in 2012, 14.4% of the 16-18 year old group were placed in solitary at the Rikers facility. 

A study done by Scandinavian researchers (2000) shows that mental disorders develop more frequently during periods of solitary than in general population. They used various tools and multiple styles to assess the inmates. Included in the study were Present State Examination – 10, Hamilton Anxiety and Depression Scale, as well as the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale and the Eysenck Health Questionnaire. They also conduct multiple interviews among the inmates. Included in the background investigations were criminal and psychiatric/psychological records.

They concluded that time spent in solitary confinement is a large factor in the production of psychological issues among inmates. They found that incarceration itself becomes a stressor and leads to mental health issues in the full prison population. They found in the British inmates, the following psychiatric morbidity percentages: General population was 42% and Solitary Confinement was 46%. The also noted that prior to incarceration the prevalence rates were higher for inmates later placed into general population than those that would be placed into solitary. The rates were general population had 31% while those later assigned to solitary had a pre-incarceration rate of 26%. These results show that, while those placed into solitary had a lower mental health issue rate lower than those placed into general population prior to incarceration, those in solitary had a higher in-house rate of mental health issues because of solitary confinement.

Ethical and Legal Rights of Offenders in Solitary

Ethical Issues: One of the main ethical issues in solitary is in the lack of treatment. A prison or Supermax (almost all solitary for those deemed the most dangerous) is meant for punishment. Since they are set up to extract a ‘pound of flesh’ for crimes, the system is meant to make the offender pay in time for their offenses. Treatment is a secondary (at best) course of action. What makes this a major issue is that the United States federal and most state and local facilities have become a dumping ground for offenders with mental health issues. With this mentality, ethical issues arise that would not normally be that prevalent in a secured mental health facility. 

One of the major ethical concerns is during therapy and assessment (Shalev, 2011). In a non-incarceration session, there is total privacy between the therapist/assessor and the client. This is not applicable when done in solitary. In the majority of facilities, those that are placed into solitary do not have the ability to leave their cell. That means confidentiality is non-existent. The session can be overheard by staff and other offenders. This is in direct violation of Guideline 10: Privacy, Confidentiality, and Privilege (AP-LS, 2013). 

Another area that violations have a tendency to show are in the rights and dignity of the offender. While in solitary the offender is enclosed much like a caged animal. If the offender is allowed to be moved, it is while chained and under constant supervision of a correctional officer. This is in violation of Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity (APA, 2010). 

Since the offender is under the control of a Department of Corrections, the psychology professional is also under the immediate control of the same facility and department. There may arise the ethical dilemma of countering the desires of the department when it is in the best interest of the patient. This is covered under Guidelines 1.02: Conflicts between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority and Guideline 1.03: Conflicts between Ethics and Organizational Demands. 

Legal Rights: In recent years, those who chose to try and get policy changes for those placed in solitary are using the courts. The Constitutional rights granted to those not incarcerated are becoming the tools used to determine the rights and protections for offenders in solitary. The 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is used to protect the U.S. citizen from cruel and unusual punishment being imposed by the state (U.S. Const. amend. VIII).

Those that use the 8th amendment to further the cause of ending solitary confinement, use research studies and academic studies that relate the adverse mental effects to cruel and unusual punishment. It is the idea that since solitary creates or enhances mental health issues in offenders that are not as prominent in general population, that is meets the theme of the amendment against cruel and unusual punishment (Hafemeister & George, 2012). The cruel part of the punishment comes from the lack of or minimal treatment for mental health issues. The unusual part of the punishment is that general population inmates, and those not incarcerated, or not subjected by the state to enduring actions that create or enhance mental health issues on a daily basis over extended periods of time. 

The lack of treatment and harsh punishment of mentally ill inmates is like committing human rights violations (Fellner, 2006). International laws for human rights, have been dedicated to treating inmates with mental health issues with dignity. These laws prohibit subjecting inmates to punishments that can be considered torture, cruel, and/or unusual. The United Nations issued Rule 27 in the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners. It states that punishment must be form, but cannot use more restriction than is needed for safe custody and well-ordered community life (UNOHCHR, 2016).

Rule 22.1 states that proper medical services will include psychiatric services to diagnose and treat mental illness. Rule 22.2 states that sick prisoners who require special treatment are to be transferred to a specialized institution unless the confinement facility has an appropriate staff and facility for treatment. Rules 31 and 32 speak of solitary confinement. Rule 31 says that all cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment (including solitary) shall be completely prohibited as punishment for disciplinary offences. 

Rule 32 has three parts. Part one states that punishment by close confinement is not be used unless the offender is check by the appropriate professional and declared fit for the punishment. This would include mental, as well as, physical fitness. Part two states that Rule 31 applies to any other punishment that may prejudicial to the physical or mental health of a prisoner. Part three states that the appropriate professional is to visit and check the prisoner daily if close confinement is used. The professional also has the obligation to request the end of or an alteration of the punishment if it becomes detrimental to the prisoner.

Rules 62 says that the medical services of the institution shall seek to detect and treat physical or mental illness that may become a problem that interrupts the prisoner’s rehabilitation. The services in the facility are to begin at the beginning of incarceration and last until release. Rule 63 states that there are to be individual and group (if needed) sessions. It has also been determined that the population of the facility is not to exceed the number that allows for individual and proper treatments. Understanding the U.N. Human Rights Laws that are in place for prisoners, it is seeable that facilities on the federal, state, and local levels are in violation of all of these rules. In basic understanding, the mentally ill that are in solitary confinement have had their human rights, as seen internationally, continually violated. 

Various Comments on Solitary by Organizations

The World Medical Association (2014) has stated that solitary confinement has been documented to cause serious psychological and psychiatric issues. These include insomnia, hallucinations, confusion, and psychosis. It also causes higher rates of suicidal actions and may continue after release from solitary confinement. The association also says that prisoners that already suffer from mental illness may show signs of mental deterioration. 

They also say that solitary confinement has a tendency to restrain needed intervention and therapy. With consideration of international human rights laws, they have determined that prolonged solitary confinement, confinement of pretrial and juvenile offenders are regarded as violations of the human rights laws and must be avoided.

The Committee against Torture (CAT) says that the United Nations has said that 15 days or more violates human rights (Cloud, & et al, 2015). CAT has recommended the full abolishment of solitary confinement practices because of the detriment to the prisoner’s mental and physical health. They have noted that U.S. judicial and legal authorities tend to reject international norms for the use or non-use of solitary confinement.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the U.S. prison system uses unneeded, overused, and overt force on inmates with mental health issues (2015).  They quoted Texas Judge, William Wayne Justice who said, “Whether because of lack of resources, a misconception of the reality of psychological pain, the inherent callousness of the bureaucracy, or officials’ blind faith in their own policies,” are causing an insufficient attention to the needs of mentally ill prisoners. The report goes on to state that there is staff neglect, mistreatment, and cavalier disregard for the wellbeing of mentally ill prisoners. 

Sharon Shalev of Solitary Confinement Org (2008) states that psychological effects are the most prominent for those in solitary confinement. Those with pre-confinement issues are the most vulnerable to deterioration while in solitary. Initial issues may become chronic issues while offender is in solitary for prolonged times. She goes on to list three main points that cause deterioration of the inmate. These are: social isolation, reduced environmental stimulation, and loss of control over most aspects of daily living. Studies have shown that the effects of solitary confinement used without clear limits (periods longer than four weeks) and used for inmates with existing mental health issues and poor social adjustment, are long lasting and can continue after release.

The APA quotes a statement by Dr. Jeffery Metzner in an issue of Monitor on Psychology (Weir, 2012). Dr. Metzner stated, “It’s hard to give a reasonable argument that you can provide adequate treatment to someone with serious mental illness who’s locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day”. It has been determined that solitary confinement is used too much. They also state that the University of Washington found that those released from supermax (full facility solitary) commit crimes faster than those released from general population facilities. 

Solitary Watch (SW) has found that prisoners in solitary have lower EEG activity, which relates to stress and anxiety (Rodriguez, 2011). The found that those in solitary develop psychopathologies at a 28% rate compared to a 15% rate for general population inmates. They present three recommendations from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. They are: Use solitary as a last resort, end conditions of isolation, and protect mentally ill prisoners.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has found that African Americans in the Michigan system make up 44% of inmates and 70% of those in solitary confinement despite being only 14% of the state’s population (AFSC, 2015). They also found that, at any given time, there are 80,000 inmates in solitary in the U.S. They also estimate that juveniles and those with mental illness comprise 33% of the solitary population. 

Changes in Law for and Perception of Solitary Confinement

Because of grass roots efforts, progressive politics, and more of an adherence to international standards of human rights and dignity, changes are being sought and made for those in solitary confinement. The United States and many states are reviewing and researching their policies for solitary confinement and offenders with mental health issues.  The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that solitary confinement is a form of punishment that is subject to scrutiny under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Bennion, 2015).

An Article in the William and Mary Law Review (2016) states that twenty-seven states prohibit placing juveniles in solitary confinement for punitive measures for a period longer than twenty-four hours. Eleven states cap solitary at one to four days. Another eleven states limit juveniles from five to ninety days. The issue with these laws on solitary confinement is that they ignore the harmful effects on those placed into solitary and the use of solitary is still used at the discretion of the facility manager. 

In January of 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) finished a study and posted a report in March on solitary confinement (USDOJ, 2016). Because of the report, President Obama set about with executive actions. Included in this actions were time limits on offenders in solitary confinement and expanded treatment programs for inmates with mental illness (Lerner, 2016). In all, the DOJ listed more than fifty new guidelines for incarceration. 

One rule is a sixty day limit that an inmate can spend in solitary confinement on a first offense, down from one year. Another is housing should be a least restrictive as possible while still allowing for safety and security. This report and the actions of the President will affect over 100 thousand inmates nationwide.

In 2014, Colorado created a new law affecting inmates that are mentally ill (Lamp, 2014). The new law requires that all inmates in solitary confinement must be tested for mental illness. Those found having a verified mental illness are to be moved from solitary confinement.

A class action lawsuit in Illinois was settled in 2015 that had inmates with mental illness as the focus (Tribune Wire Reporter, 2015). The suit was brought against the Illinois Department of Corrections on behalf of 11,000 mentally ill inmates. The settlement calls for four treatment units to be built. Time in solitary of these inmates will be limited and they will receive appropriate treatment. It also included a provision for inmates with mental illness that commit a minor violation that states they will not be placed into solitary confinement.

Moving Forward

With the few steps that 8th amendment arguments have had, the ending of solitary and mental health improvement are still lagging. A look at this issue was presented in the Denver University Law Review (2012). The article says that it would be possible to use to different laws to fight for those offenders in solitary confinement that have mental health issues. 

The first law mentioned is the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).  The second is the Rehabilitation Act (RA). It is believed that prisoners with mental health issues meet the criteria for falling under these laws. These laws allow challenges as to the conditions of solitary confinement and supermax confinement. The argument is that the denial of privileges or services because of their mental disability may constitute discrimination. This may prove as a valuable tool considering that many offenders are in solitary confinement because of their mental health issues. It seems to be, that their issues create the problem that requires solitary confinement as punishment. 

The first element of these laws falls to the proof that their mental health issues are a disability. Seemingly, under the ADA, most with mental health issues would meet the criteria based on the fact that their mental illness impairs relations, learning, concepts of right/wrong, and do normal daily activities without mind altering medications and other interventions and aids. The second element is the proof that the mentally ill offender is being denied services and programs that they are entitled too. This is easy to prove since their mental illness caused them to be placed into solitary confinement and being in solitary eliminates all but basic services (food, water) and programs (proper therapy, medication). 

The third element, and the hardest to prove, is that the mental disability is the reason for being placed into solitary confinement. The offender must prove that his mental illness caused the actions that were against rule, policy, and safety. The direct link between the mental disability and the punishment must be established. 

There is one issue that may arise once the three elements have been met and the offender has a legitimate discrimination suit. Once the claim has been deemed justified, the facility could claim that any changes based on the ruling of discrimination could fundamentally alter the programs and services for which solitary confinement was set into motion. Simply put, the facility can say that ‘yes he has a disability that caused him to be placed into solitary and we did discriminate against that disability. But, to make changes based on this disability would require the basic destruction of the solitary confinement program used as protection from those that would harm or kill staff or other prisoners’.

An Article from 2008 made recommendations for solitary confinement and offenders with mental health issues that have been placed there (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008). The main recommendation made was placed in the best interest of offenders with mental illness. It is a simple remedy. Do not place inmates with proven mental health issues into solitary confinement as a punitive punishment. Since inmates with proven mental health issues are more vulnerable to deterioration while in solitary confinement, it is believed that these inmates could be better managed in a secured unit where they can get the services that are required as treatment for the mental illness. 

A second recommendation is based on the conduct of the correctional officers and staff that control solitary confinement. The officers should be highly supervised and trained to deal with the special situations that may and do occur within this special population of the facility. They should also be held fully accountable for any type of abusive treatment that could cause further deterioration or invoke a possible uncontrollable response from the inmate.

The third recommendation is the area and procedure of solitary confinement. Cells should have the ability for natural lighting and allow the inmate to control manufactured light. They should also be areas with enough space for exercise and be allowed better recreation ability. They should also be allowed access to personal belongings. The cells should also be designed so that the inmate is not enclosed in a solid steel box with little natural ventilation and solid doors. 

The fourth recommendation is the allowance of social interaction. This would be one on one with therapists and religious leaders, as well as allowed visits from family. The fifth and final recommendation is a set non-extended time limit for placement in solitary confinement. 


Solitary confinement for a mentally healthy inmate can cause mental issues. The prolonged isolation causes physical and mental deterioration of the inmate. While disruptive and dangerous inmates need to be placed outside of general population for safety of staff and fellow inmates, it is a fact that solitary confinement causes issues that were not there and further the mental illness that is. Solitary confinement causes issues, such as impaired memory, confusion, psychosis, depression, and personality changes (Kelsall, 2014). 

Some states and the federal government officials are starting to make strides in elevating many of the issues surrounding both solitary confinement and mentally ill inmates. The President has issued executive actions and courts have ruled in favor of dignity and aid for the mentally ill in solitary confinement. But there is much work left in the field. More studies must be performed to better educate elected officials, appointees, and those in charge of the correctional services. 

By following recommendations from those that have a vested interest, the researchers that validate the information, and the elected that affect change, eventually the nation may be seen in a less barbaric light. Further assault on the mentally ill in prison can only lead to a generation of high recidivism, more crime, and less aid to those that need it. 

Hubert H Humphrey said in his final speech, “…the moral test of a government is how that government treats those how are in the dawn of life, children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”  The mentally ill in solitary confinement are all three entities in the shadows. How will our nation be remembered?


American Friends Service Committee. (2015). Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons. Discussion. Retrieved from http://www.afsc.org/recap-solitary 

American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/

American Psychology-Law Society. (2013). Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/forensic-psychology.aspx 

Anderson, H., Sestoft, D., Lillebaek, T., Gabrielson, G., Hemmingsen, R. & Kramp, P. (2000). A longitudinal study of prisoners on remand: Psychiatric prevalence, incidence and psychopathology in solitary vs. non-solitary confinement. Acta Psychiatr Scandinavia 102, 19-25. Retrieved from http://sfxhosted.exlibrisgroup.com/waldenu?sid=google&auinit=HS&aulast=Andersen&atitle=A+longitudinal+study+of+prisoners+on+remand:+psychiatric+prevalence,+incidence+and+psychopathology+in+solitary+vs.+non%E2%80%90solitary+confinement&id=doi:10.1034/j.1600-0447.2000.102001019.x&title=Acta+psychiatrica+Scandinavica&volume=102&issue=1&date=2000&spage=19

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One thought on “The Crime of Solitary Confinement

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