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Solitary Confinement

Definition of Solitary confinement

Solitary confinement is a form of punishment in prisons, most used in the United States, subjecting prisoners to live in small cells with little or no contact with other people. It is often used as a punishment for inmates that are deemed dangerous to themselves, others, or the prison itself. It can also be used as a protective technique for prisoners who face danger from other inmates.

Origins of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement started in the 1800s when it was theorised that prisoners in solitary confinement would use the time to repent their sins. This was due to a popular philosophical theory called the “Split Mind Theory”, which believes that in your body, there are two selves: your own self, and your “ideal self”, which is the voice in your head that tells you when you’re doing something wrong. Therefore, if someone was put into solitary confinement, the consensus was that they would talk to their ideal self and repent.

Early days of Solitary Confinement

However, this was proved wrong quickly, when many inmates that had undergone solitary confinement came back out with many mental disorders, which even led to the US Supreme Court declaring in 1890 that solitary confinement was dangerous, even stating that “a considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition.”

But during the 1960s, solitary confinement restarted, and currently, 20% of all prisoners and 18% of jail inmates have spent time in solitary confinement, the process quickened due to the rising of supermax prisons.

A report in 2017 by the Queen’s Inspectorate of prisons said that even children were subject to solitary confinement.

Mental health effects of Solitary Confinement

A large pool of research has definitively concluded that solitary confinement can cause adverse psychological effects, which include: anxiety, stress, paranoia, poor impulse control, social withdrawal, hallucinations, self-harm or suicide etc.

In addition, Professor Lisa Guenther argues that inmates almost never come out better, and are only ever harmed by the experience, some even losing their minds and abilities to interpret their own experiences.

While it is not clear why this actually happens to inmates of solitary confinement, a theory that has been raised is of the fact that we humans have a “collective” mind, that we must need someone else to confirm our existence and our perceptions, a theory also stated in the famous play, “No Exit.”

Professor Guenther writes that, “If one is deprived for long enough of the experience of other concrete persons in a shared or common space, it is possible for one's own sense of personhood to diminish or even collapse, while the transcendental ego, or the pure capacity for experience, remains. Without the concrete experience of other embodied egos oriented towards common objects in a shared world, my own experience of the boundaries of those perceptual objects begins to waver. It becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is only my imagination playing tricks on me. I may begin to hallucinate, spontaneously generating an experience of imaginary others in the absence of concrete bodily relations, or I may have less dramatic, but no less unnerving, perceptual distortions, like the Supermax prisoners for whom the wire mesh on their door begins to vibrate or the surface of the wall seems to bulge.

Guenther continues to say, “There are many ways to destroy a person, but one of the simplest and most devastating is through prolonged solitary confinement. Deprived of meaningful human interaction, otherwise healthy prisoners become unhinged. They see things that do not exist, and they fail to see things that do. Their sense of their own bodies, even the fundamental capacity to feel pain and distinguish their own pain from that of others, erodes to the point where they’re no longer sure if they’re being harmed or harming themselves.”

Case study: Robert King

Robert King was a Black Panther who was imprisoned in a cell that was 6 feet by 9 feet for 29 years, for a murder he didn’t even commit, and when he was asked about the experience, this is what he said,” When I walked out of Angola, I didn't realize how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances, a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there.”

Other problems with Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement, as well as the prison population in general, is subject to much racial bias. Black people and Hispanic males account for a larger amount of people in solitary confinement compared to the general prison population.

Solitary confinement has been likened to torture, the UN Committee against torture stating that full isolation for 22–23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable and the UN banning the use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days- which many US states do not follow, some even giving solitary confinement to prisoners for mild offenses, like abusive language.


Guenther, Lisa. Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2013.

"History and Health Consequences of Solitary Confinement." 19 Nov. 2018,

"Effects of solitary confinement on mental and physical health." 6 Aug. 2020,

Researcher: Megan


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