In the "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: August 2014


A special housing unit cell for two prisoners, a variant of solitary confinement used in New York State. Photo: New York Civil Liberties Union

Exploring the Ethics of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is known by many names: isolation, segregation, segregated housing unit (which may ring a bell to fans of the popular TV series “Orange Is The New Black”).

Solitary confinement is a “jail within a jail,” an isolated cell that separates particular inmates from the general prison population. Typically, inmates in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day alone in their small cells, without interaction with others, programming, or time with the general prison population.

The issue of appropriate use of solitary confinement was explored by students in the Brandeis University Legal Studies course "Advocacy for Policy Change" (LGLS 161b), in the spring of 2014. The course is the centerpiece of an initiative launched by the Ethics Center designed to encourage citizens to bring moral and ethical insights to the process of making and revising laws. 

In this Ethical Inquiry we explore the ethics of solitary confinement, focusing on the use of this practice in the United States.

History of Solitary Confinement

Solitary began in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829. Its origins are based on the Quaker belief that “prisoners isolated in stone cells with only a Bible would use the time to repent, pray and find introspection.” Though it may seem surprising now, solitary was conceived a humanitarian reform, separating individuals from overcrowded jails.

The practice fell out of favor in the late 1800's after prisons found that a considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

Solitary returned to American prisons starting in the “Tough On Crime” 1980's. After two prison guards were killed at Marion State prison in 1983, the first “supermax” prison (prisons – or units within prisons – which consist of all solitary units) was born.

Today, there are segregation units in regular prisons, as well as supermax prisons. It is estimated that 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years.  

International Perspective

The United Kingdom

The United States relies on solitary confinement more than most of our Western counterparts.  For example, .1% of the United Kingdom’s prison population is in segregation, compared to the 1.8% in the United States.

While the US began relying more heavily on segregation to crack down on crime in the 1980's, the UK chose a different strategy. They began moving prisoners out of solitary confinement and into “Close Supervision Centres.”

In these centers, “prisoners get mental-health treatment and earn rights…. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspection to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data. Solitary confinement is frowned upon by much of the international community.


Solitary confinement is used sparingly in the Scandinavian countries. It is reserved “for a period of weeks for mentally-well pre-trial detainees with judicial participation in the initial sentence to solitary confinement.”

The United Nations

The United Nations has expressed concern about the overuse of solitary confinement in the Americas, and believes that solitary should only be used in exceptional cases

Perspectives of Supporters

Safer for Officers and Inmates

Solitary is used to isolate inmates considered to be dangerous or disruptive, or to protect inmates who are considered to be under threat.

Correction officers face a dangerous, stressful and demanding work environment. Segregation has been common since the 1980's, and many correction officers believe it is necessary for their own safety and for the safety of inmates.

Dan Rowe, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, asserted, “In a typical year in the New York State corrections system, there are more than 1,200 reported incidents of inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-staff assaults…. If we eliminated special housing units, that violence would not simply disappear—in fact, the numbers would probably skyrocket.”

Solitary confinement is used as a form of protection for inmates who face threats in the general prison population. This “protective” solitary is often used for LGBT inmates, as well as individuals with mental health issues.

Luis Spencer, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections expressed a similar sentiment. When asked for his opinion on the effort to reform solitary in the Commonwealth, Spencer stated, “We have to be realistic when we’re running these prisons... segregation is a necessary tool [to maintain order and safety] in a prison environment.”

This highlights the belief that solitary confinement provides discipline to unruly inmates and prevents violence. The thought is that this restrictive measure is the only option to control inmates who do not follow the rules, or who face threats in the general population.

Prevents Violence

Another use of solitary is to keep gang members separate from one another to prevent the coordination of illicit activity. Isolation is used to prevent communication and coordination between alleged gang members or terrorists, and is one strategy used to prevent gang violence from occurring within a prison. For example, in Pelican Bay, a supermax state prison in California, inmates with alleged gang ties are kept in isolated units.

Professor David Lovell studied solitary confinement in Washington State and found that most of the inmates in solitary confinement had gang affiliations and were serving for violent offenses

Represents the Will of the People

Prisoners are not a sympathetic population to most voters. For politicians, the choice to come out against solitary can be a form of “political suicide” in the words of Atul Gawande. A politician might appear to be “soft on crime,” which can be a political/electoral liability.

Furthermore, some politicians Many politicians fear angering or alienating correction officers and correction officer unions, which have a duty to protect their members’ jobs.

Provides Economic Benefits to the Local Population

Changing the use of solitary would change the job structure within state correction departments. Segregation requires higher staffing, which means more jobs for correction officers.

Prisons are also viewed by many to be an economic benefit to communities, particularly rural communities.  In fact, rural governments “actively court new prisons as a steady source of income. These governments believe that prisons will provide jobs to local citizens… as well as foster the development of “prison businesses.” 

Perspectives of Opponents


Solitary confinement is the most costly form of incarceration. In Massachusetts, guarding a prisoner costs about $45,000 per year, but this number doubles or triples for someone in solitary confinement.

Creates Psychological Damage

Stuart Grassian, a Board-Certified forensic psychiatrist and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, is an international expert on psychological effects of prolonged isolation. In his research, he has found that segregation can induce a “psychotic delirium,” with inmates who did not have prior mental health issues developing symptoms of serious mental illness. Their symptoms range from becoming essentially catatonic, to irrational anger. A 2014 study found that there was a significant association between being in solitary and committing self-harm. 

Essentially, prolonged isolation has serious detrimental effects on inmates with and without pre-existing mental illness. The idea here is that “whether in Walpole [Massachusetts] or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.” 

Ineffective and Dangerous to the Public

Many contend that the goal of the prison system is to rehabilitate people and prepare them to return to the community.

97% of the individuals held in solitary confinement will be released. However, it has been shown that segregation “doesn’t make people better.” This means people who have been in this psychologically damaging environment are returning to the community.  

In addition to the psychological damage that solitary has been shown to cause, segregation also “separates people from the services that could actually help them.” Some research suggests that inmates released from solitary confinement are “more likely to reoffend than comparable prisoners released from conventional maximum-security prisons, and that those crimes are more likely to be violent.”

Rick Raemisch, Chief of Corrections for Colorado, spent two nights in solitary confinement in January, 2014. His predecessor was shot to death by a former inmate who had spent years in solitary. Reflecting on his time in solitary, Raemisch wrote, “If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.”

Final Thoughts

Public opinion on solitary confinement has gone back and forth since its inception. Reform efforts in states across the country suggest that the tide may be turning against solitary confinement once again.

For example, in the early 2010's, the state of Mississippi enacted a dramatic overhaul of its solitary confinement system. This resulted from a lawsuit from the ACLU following an outbreak of violence in the state’s supermax prison. After the lawsuit, the state loosened restrictions on prisoners in isolation, and found that their behavior improved. The number of inmates in isolation dropped from 1000 to 300. In fact, the state actually closed its supermax prison, saving $5 million

In Massachusetts, Senator James Eldridge introduced bill S.1133, an act relative to the appropriate use of solitary confinement in 2013, which outlined a series of reforms to solitary confinement in the Commonwealth, requiring regular medical and psychiatric evaluations as well as regular hearing about an inmate’s status in solitary. The bill did not pass and was sent to study.

Still, many questions remain about the use of solitary confinement. Whose opinion should take precedence: corrections officers inside the prison, inmates, or the general public outside? Is solitary necessary to control a prison and maintain safety? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding the solitary confinement? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Leah Igdalsky ’14. See other “Ethical Inquiries” authored by Igdalsky: “How Should I Choose My Commitments to Causes?” and "The Ethics of Advocacy: KONY 2012".