Criminology Solitary Confinement
Ian O'Donnell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0110


Solitary confinement has long been part of the practice of imprisonment in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. It has changed over time in terms of the underlying rationale, the enthusiasm with which it is embraced, and the identities of its most ardent advocates. In the early decades of the 19th century, religiously motivated prison reformers were at the forefront. Consensus was widespread about the need for prisoners to live by a rule of silence but disagreement as to whether this required separation at all times from their peers or whether silent association was acceptable (or, indeed, preferable). In the closing decades of the 20th century, there was renewed interest in solitary confinement, but without the concern for prisoner welfare and rehabilitation that had characterized earlier debates. Now the protagonists were prison administrators, and a discourse that had taken place outside the prison gates and featured many voices was replaced by one that was almost entirely internal and one-sided. Typically, there are four kinds of circumstances under which prisoners are isolated. First, there is protective custody, often at the prisoner’s request. A return to the general population can be difficult if a prisoner has been segregated because of vulnerability due to the nature of his or her offense, the accumulation of debts that cannot be discharged, or a perception that he or she has communicated information to staff. Second, there is disciplinary detention for breaking prison rules; generally the duration is relatively short. In some countries a court can impose solitary confinement as part of a sentence and the time period here can be lengthy. Third is administrative segregation. This can be short term (e.g., while an investigation is being carried out or pending transfer) or long term (if a prisoner is thought to present a threat to institutional order). Fourth, there are occasions when prisoners seek the respite of the solitary cell as a way of easing psychological pressures. In such cases the stay tends to be brief and prisoners return to their usual place of abode afterward. Long-term administrative segregation in the United States in facilities that have been described as offering “supermax” custody has generated concern on human rights grounds as well as for reasons of economy and efficacy.

General Overviews

While the topic of solitary confinement has attracted a significant amount of scholarly interest, much of this concerns the philosophies of imprisonment that competed for ascendency during the first half of the 19th century and the associated architectural forms. In more recent years, particularly with the emergence during the 1980s of what has become known as “supermax” custody, several attempts have been made to delineate the psychological consequences of segregation. Sometimes these were examinations of how individuals responded to sensory deprivation over relatively brief periods of time. Sometimes they were surveys of psychopathology carried out in support of prisoners who were challenging the constitutionality of their confinement. Generally speaking, the sample sizes involved were small and self-selecting, and the studies have been criticized as methodologically weak, lacking comparison groups and follow-up data (Haney and Lynch 1997). Few sources cover the topic at a general or introductory level, but Smith 2006 is comprehensive. This state-of-the-art review is complemented by two publications from Sharon Shalev, the first being a sourcebook that is available online from the Mannheim Centre for Criminology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Shalev 2008), and the second being a more detailed monograph that originated as a PhD thesis (Shalev 2009). In tandem, these give a good sense of the human rights implications of the US experiment with supermaximum security confinement, as well as the lived reality of supermax for those who must endure it, sometimes for decades. Regular updates, news bulletins, and fact sheets are published online at Solitary Watch. O’Donnell 2014 explores the roles of silence and separation in penal policy and the ways that isolated prisoners deal with the passage of time, its meanderings, measures, and meanings.

  • Haney, Craig, and Mona Lynch. 1997. Regulating prisons of the future: A psychological analysis of supermax and solitary confinement. New York University Review of Law and Social Change 23.4: 477–570.

    Review of the mental health consequences of isolation and sensory deprivation that incorporates a critique of how courts in the United States have been slow to recognize the psychological ramifications of solitary confinement.

  • O’Donnell, Ian. 2014. Prisoners, solitude, and time. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199684489.001.0001

    Analysis of penal isolation, past and present, with a focus on the temporal dimension of the experience. Trenchantly critical of the practice of solitary confinement but also acknowledging that if we are to be true to the prisoner experience, stories of resilience and post-traumatic growth must be woven into the narrative. Copies of this book have been placed in every prison library in Ireland.

  • Shalev, Sharon. 2008. A sourcebook on solitary confinement. London: Mannheim Centre for Criminology.

    This is a compendium of what is known about the deleterious effects of solitary confinement. It indicates the kinds of legal and ethical minimum standards that are required to ensure prisoners’ human rights are respected and promoted. Targeted primarily at policymakers, prison managers, and health professionals.

  • Shalev, Sharon. 2009. Supermax: Controlling risk through solitary confinement. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    Wide-ranging account of the emergence of supermax and how it has distorted the US penal landscape. Describes supermax as an expensive failure by its own criteria of improving safety and order across the prison estate. Illustrates how degrees of solitariness that were once considered extreme have been normalized.

  • Smith, Peter Scharff. 2006. The effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates: A brief history and review of the literature. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 34. Edited by Michael Tonry, 441–528. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Lengthy and authoritative literature review. Sets out parameters of debate about solitary confinement and its adverse mental health effects. Highlights where deficits in knowledge remain. Identifies controversies associated with supermax confinement in the United States and pre-trial detention in Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark. Raises policy issues associated with prolonged isolation.

  • Solitary Watch.

    Online repository of information about solitary confinement, including original reporting, first-and accounts, and legal updates. Aimed at lawyers, policymakers, corrections staff, scholars, and activists as well as prisoners and their families.

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