Also known as maximum security, segregation or lockdown, solitary confinement is, literally speaking, a prison within a prison, where criminals and convicts who violate the institution’s rules and regulations are put. They are placed in a cell and are not allowed any communication with other prisoners. Most of the time, people under solitary confinement are left in their cells for 23 hours a day, an act considered by some people as a necessary disciplinary action, but inhumane for others.
Considering that prisoners are also human beings who are social creatures and need interaction in order to stay mentally healthy, is solitary confinement reasonable enough to implement in a prison system? To get a good insight about this subject, it is best to look at its pros and cons.
List of Pros of Solitary Confinement
1. It provides prisoners with some form of protection from the general public.
High-risk offenders and other dangerous prisoners, such as murderers, child molesters and ex-gang members, can be kept segregated with solitary confinement. As it uses much higher security protocols, it would be more difficult for such prisoners to harm others.
2. It provides an added level of protection for the public.
As imprisonment can be justified when it offers protection to the public from serious threats, the same reason goes for locking up those who are likely to re-offend and even for detaining someone indefinitely.
3. It offers prison safety.
One of the main reasons why solitary confinement is implemented is when a prisoner is being regarded as a threat to staff and other inmates. Those who support it argue that it is absolutely needed in order to ensure the majority’s safety.
4. It still allows prisoners to serve their sentences.
Some people might say that death inside prison systems is justice serving itself, but vigilantism is not supported by the laws of the US and other developed nations. So, solitary confinement would allow for sentences to be served more accurately in a morally appropriate fashion.
5. It provides prison guards another means to discipline prisoners.
Without some sort of punishment for negative behavior, it would be nearly impossible for prison guards to maintain order within the prison walls. Most likely, an individual does not like the idea of being locked up on his own without allowing him to experience any human contact for weeks on end, thus a delicate balancing act would be enforced.
6. It aids in the reformation of prisoner characters.
Another justifiable aim of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation or reformation of character. According to Dr. Sharon Shalev, this was a historic rationale for solitary confinement. She said, “Solitary confinement was first widely and systematically used on both sides of the Atlantic in the ‘separate’ and ‘silent’ penitentiaries of the 19th century, with the aim of reforming convicts. It was believed that once left alone with their conscience and the Bible, prisoners would engage in inner reflection, see the error of their ways and be reformed into law abiding citizens.”
7. It can somehow satisfy the interests of the victims and members of the public to see wrong-doers punished.
Solitary confinement can provide some kind of justification to increase a punishment in some situations, other things being equal, but the extent victims and the public are being satisfied has been put in question. The interest of society members to see offenders being punished might provide a rationale for solitary confinement, at least when an existing penalty is clearly regarded as “too weak”. However, the sufficiency of this interest is still doubtful, considering the serious harms solitary confinement would bring, so it should be coupled with other benefits.
List of Cons of Solitary Confinement
1. It creates the loss of freedom.
If someone is being isolated in cell, he would be stripped of the feeling of having control over his surroundings, which can result in increased anxiety, paranoia and claustrophobia. In fact, most prisoners who were put under such a punishment have tried to gain control over their surroundings by resorting to a self-destructive behavior.
2. It may not meet all of the prisoner’s needs.
Most policies of solitary confinement would require 22-23 hours of isolation in a small cell every day, where 1-2 hours of recreation are given to prisoners, while still being locked into another cage outside with nothing to do except for standing around and waiting for the time outside to pass by.
3. It violates basic human rights.
Solitary confinement can actually fit the definition of torture, as stated in some international human rights treaties. This means that it constitutes a violation to human rights. As an example, the UN Convention Against Torture clearly defines torture as an act through which severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for punishment, intimidation, information or for other reasons, such as discrimination.
4. It offers little to no privacy to prisoners.
Under solitary confinement, guards would monitor the movements of inmates by using video cameras, and communication between control booth officers and prisoners is mostly done through the vents. All processes are done electronically.
5. It might cause prisoners to have personality and mental health disorders.
Those who are being isolated would be vulnerable or at risk of having mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. They might experience delusions and hallucinations, as well as become very paranoid or may display symptoms of mental distress, making them lose their grip on reality.
6. It provides no real purpose of rehabilitation.
The primary purpose of incarceration systems is offering prisoners the chance to rehabilitate themselves and transform into something better than they thought they could be. However, this purpose is often forgotten with solitary confinement, where the goal is often to just let time pass by as quickly as possible. Rehabilitation requires human interaction, and isolation is best for administrative segregation or short-term protective custody. Anything beyond that would be punitive and cruel.
Some people see solitary confinement as one of the most difficult ways to do time, while others seek it out to feel safe while in prison. So, is it an ethical incarceration practice? By weighing down its pros and cons, each of us will have sufficient knowledge to decide which side of the debate he or she supports.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.