Chapter Four: Solitary Confinement

In Chapter Four, General Benjamin marks the passing days of the hostage crisis on the vice president’s wall with a crayon. Despite the presence of a number of time-keeping methods such as the many calendars and watches throughout the house, the General feels that the “old-fashioned way” is best and is reminded of his brother who marks the passage of time using his fingernail in solitary confinement. When I read this, I was curious as to why the brother is being held in solitary confinement for an extended period of time since it was my impression that prisons typically only use solitary confinement as a punitive measure or more rarely, to isolate inmates for their own protection. This question prompted me to research how solitary confinement is applied in Latin America as compared to the United States.

I began my research process by looking into how solitary confinement has been implemented and studied in the United States, as the country seems to have produced the most developed research on the subject. I was surprised to find that solitary confinement is far more common in our country than I had originally thought it to be. The Quakers introduced solitary confinement in Philadelphia during the eighteenth century as an alternative to public floggings, advocating for the opportunity the isolation allowed to reconsider one’s sin and connect with God (Roberts 107). However, solitary confinement was not popular in the United States until the introduction of supermax prisons in the 1980s, designed to curb an increase in prison violence that began in the early 1970s (Smith). Supermax prisons are intended to hold the most dangerous prisoners who supposedly pose the greatest threat to other inmates and prison staff, confining inmates to small, steel-lined rooms for 23-24 hours per day. These inmates are granted little to no opportunities for entertainment, education, or social interaction, and visitation and phone calls are strictly monitored if they are allowed at all. Solitary confinement is also used in lower security prison facilities in the form of Special Housing Units (SHU) as a punishment for deviating from the rules enforced by prison guards as well as protection from other inmates, particularly if the prisoner is a known child molester or witness (Metzner 104). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80,000 inmates across the nation are held in solitary confinement on average, either in supermax prisons or in SHU (Carlson 637).

While solitary confinement in the United States is often argued to be an inhumane practice, the conditions in Latin American prisons for those kept in isolation are far more brutal. Mark Ungar, a professor of human rights at Brooklyn College, writes that while Latin American countries have made significant progress in democratization and judicial reform, these improvements have yet to be realized in the prison systems. Due to an ever-increasing crime rate and generally weak administrations, Latin American nations do not have the resources to hold courts and prison officials accountable (Ungar 909). In fact, the severity of conditions is so poor that the United Nations formally urged countries in Latin America to place more regulations on their application of solitary confinement in 2013 (Doswald-Beck). As I was researching, I kept coming across information about the human rights abuses in Peruvian prisons with regard to solitary confinement, which caught my eye since the country is where the book may be set. In fact, one of the most significant human rights cases that has addressed the issue of solitary confinement is Espinoza de Polay v. Peru, a case in which the plaintiff sued the Republic of Peru on behalf of her husband, a political dissident who was subjected to inhumane conditions in solitary confinement. In a Peruvian prison, he was held in a two by two meter cell with no access to sunlight, electricity, water, or outside communication of any kind for more than three years and was only allowed outside of his cell for thirty minutes every day. The United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Peru’s treatment of the prisoner was inhumane and denounced the Peruvian government for human rights violations (Jayawickrama 430-432). In another case involving the Latin American country, Castillo Petruzzi et al v. Peru, several Peruvians who were accused of treason were held for more than thirty days in isolation and were required to be hooded at all times before they even saw a judge, which the Committee found to be “cruel, inhuman and degrading forms of punishment” (Doswald-Beck 206).

As I was researching this topic, I came across many sources that advocated against the use of solitary confinement, citing the severe psychological impact it can have on those who must endure it and claiming it violates human rights. In one study conducted in a Kentucky prison, researchers found that the longer inmates were held in solitary confinement, the more likely they were to report feelings of “inadequacy, inferiority, withdrawal, and isolation” as well as “rage, anger, and aggression” than those not in solitary confinement (Miller 91–92). Additionally, the suicide rate for prisoners kept in solitary confinement is much higher than that of the general prison population, and prisoners with psychological disturbance are often only treated with psychotropic medication with no access to individual or group therapy (Metzner 105). There are clear reasons behind the continued use of solitary confinement in Latin America, but why is it still allowed in the United States today if it can cause permanent psychological damage?

Because of the protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” found in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, the issue of whether the practice of confining inmates in isolation is constitutional has been brought up in court on a number of occasions. However, the test that must be met to classify a punishment as “cruel and unusual” is difficult to meet; the prisoner’s suffering must be severe and prison officials must “act with deliberate indifference to the prisoner’s health and safety.” The U.S. Supreme Court has maintained that solitary confinement does not violate the amendment, and most lower courts have decided in the same manner (Shames 10). However, just because a practice may be constitutional doesn’t mean we should necessarily use it. In 2013, the average cost to house an inmate in a supermax facility was $216.12 compared to just $85.74 in general population, and studies have shown that there is no relationship between the introduction of supermax prisons and the incidence of violence in prisons (Shames 18, 24). I have found this topic to be particularly interesting, and I think there are many avenues of approaching it. If I decide to move forward with this topic for my paper, I think I would want to explore alternative methods of keeping prisons safe so that the high monetary and psychological costs of solitary confinement do not have to be incurred.

Carlson, Peter M. and Judith Simon Garrett. Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and Theory. Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2013. Print.

Doswald-Beck, Louise. Human Rights in Times of Conflict and Terrorism. OUP Oxford, 2011. Print.

Jayawickrama, Nihal. The Judicial Application of Human Rights Law: National, Regional and International Jurisprudence. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Miller, Holly A., and Glenn R. Young. “Prison Segregation: Administrative Detention Remedy or Mental Health Problem.” Criminal Behavior and Mental Health. 1997. 7:85–94.

Shames, Alison. “Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives.” Vera Institute of Justice. 2015.

Smith, Peter Scharff. “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” Crime and Justice 34.1 (2006): 441–528. JSTOR. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Ungar, Mark. “Prisons and Politics in Contemporary Latin America.” Human Rights Quarterly 25.4 (2003): 909–934. Print.


4 thoughts on “Chapter Four: Solitary Confinement

  1. annawallace003 says:

    I considered researching this topic as well so I really enjoyed reading about what you were able to find. I totally agree with you that being placed in solitary confinement is probably unnecessary in a lot of cases. I understand that committing a crime results in a punishment but I feel like there has to be a better alternative out there in order to punish the people who are placed in solitary confinement. Causing a person to decline in ones mental state is serious and doesn’t exactly set them up for a better future. You mentioned the cost of keeping prisoners in this environment; was this cost per day?
    After reading your post, I was reminded of the Genie case, occurring in 1970, that I have studied in a previous course. You may or may not know about it but I think it would correlate well with the research that you did, especially when evaluating how being in solitary confinement affects a person psychologically. To sum the story up, a social worker discovered a young girl that had been raised for her entire life caged up in a small and confined environment. It was then found that she spent most of her days tied up without any human interaction therefore she lacked any and all forms of communication. Her case was extremely important to the knowledge that we now have relating to human development and social needs. I think that if you plan to go forward with this topic that you should definitely read up on this. It is a totally different perspective due to the fact that the solitary confinement you researched occurs once a person is already fully developed where as in the Genie case she had experienced solitary confinement from around the age of two.



  2. Michael Pedersen says:

    Intriguing research topic! It staggers the mind to think that total isolation is actually thought of as a real rehabilitation technique.
    Upon reading your description of a SuperMax prison I started wondering about a whole slew of possible future research topics. The most notable of which would be determining if the psychology of the brain changes after prolonged periods of social isolation and, if so, how? Considering that vision takes up a significant portion of the brain’s processing power, the lack of environmental diversity in an isolation chamber might be the main cause of mental instability in sensory deprived isolation chambers.
    To further extend the previous inquiry you could also look into what military training does in order to make soldiers more resistant to sensory deprivation. I believe one tactic the US military teaches is how to use mental math problems like counting backward from 1000 by 7 helps preserve one’s sanity.
    You mentioned a string of court cases against Peruvian prisons like Espinoza de Polay v. Peru and Castillo Petruzzi et al v Peru. It would be enlightening to see how the arguments of these court cases relate to the atrocities outlined in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture released some time ago. Specifically I’m quite curious on how the government’s official definition of torture and, as you mentioned, “cruel and unusual” in both Peru and America relate to the actual conditions experienced in these prisons.
    All in all, this blog post was very in depth and exceptionally thought provoking. There are so many fantastic research topics that could be derived from this main paper.


  3. ballen68 says:

    This post is really interesting. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement in the United States is extremely shocking! The quantitative facts you gave and then the qualitative descriptions of what solitary confinement is like was really interesting. You did a great job of conveying your thoughts and showing your view on the issue without actually having to state your side.

    Some things I wonder about is if all these prisoners in solitary confinement are treated equally as far as the amount of interaction they receive. Are they all receiving equal amounts of time out of the cell, do any of them get more sunlight than others, more physical activity, more visitation rights? The other question that arose for me is what percentage of these 80,000 have the death sentence penalty.That makes a difference as to how they are treated in my opinion, and has several political issues as well as ethical issues that arise.

    Is it okay to keep someone who has the death penalty in a prison cell for the rest of their life? Those that are on death row are put in this cell and basically left to deteriorate physically, emotionally, and intellectually. I’m not sure that that is fair to those given the death sentence. Maybe ther should be given the right to choose which they would rather have. I realize it isn’t always fair to have a quick process with death penalty, because sometimes we get it wrong unfortunately. However, if the prisoner chooses to have the death penalty over sitting and rotting in a cell, maybe we should allow them to have their wishes.



  4. katelynzander says:

    I really enjoyed this research topic. I remember reading this part of the book and thinking “Solitary confinement would be so awful!” This topic carries very large opinions with it and I believe you kept a strong neutrality throughout your reflection. It really fascinates me how we try to draw these lines like, how bad does your crime have to be to have this punishment, what is the real definition of cruel and usual. To me, these questions seem rather subjective opinions and change from person to person, judge to judge, with someone’s life on the other end. You stated in your research “Because of the protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” found in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, the issue of whether the practice of confining inmates in isolation is constitutional has been brought up in court on a number of occasions.” All the psychological problems being in solitary confinement causes I find it hard that we still use it so much in the United States. Prison is meant to be a place for rehabilitation, solitary confinement for long periods of time mentally and physically affect us as humans. We were meant for communicating and for connection. Once you deprive someone of these needs for so long and they are unable to talk through their mental instabilities we are really just creating an even greater monster. I am in no way stating that these individuals do not deserve such harshness for some of their crimes, but I would argue that solitary confinement is unconstitutional.


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