Within the last few decades, the punitive aspect of prison has been deemphasized in favor of its rehabilitative potential in public discourse. Consequently, the practice of solitary confinement has become a subject of controversy. Approximately five percent of incarcerated populations in the U.S. are in confinement at any given moment (Haney, 2018). Multiple studies have documented its adverse psychological effects and counterproductive disciplinary results (Haney, 2018). I believe the use of solitary confinement is ultimately harmful and does not achieve its intended outcome.
Solitary Confinement Should Be Eliminated
Solitary confinement has negative psychological effects because it deprives prisoners of their sense of agency and access to meaningful social contact. Firstly, it is usually imposed involuntarily and indefinitely, so prisoners have no control over its length or end. Secondly, it typically involves either the complete absence of sensory input or aversive overstimulation—such as a bombardment of loud noise and bright lights. These conditions, exacerbated by extreme social isolation, lead to sleep disturbances, stress-related reactions, aggression, cognitive dysfunction, and an increased likelihood of self-harm and suicide (Haney, 2018). Regardless of their past infractions, it is vital to remember that prisoners are still human beings and that exposing them to harsh and dehumanizing conditions has potentially permanent and life-threatening risks.
Furthermore, even if these ethical concerns are overlooked, research indicates that solitary confinement does not achieve its intended disciplinary objectives. It incurs high costs compared to other types of prison housing, and correctional officials have admitted that it may even worsen the problems it was meant to solve (Haney, 2018). It does not reduce the prevalence of prison gangs, and staff assaults and even increases post-prison recidivism rates (Haney, 2018). Additionally, dysfunctional social pathologies such as impaired self-regulation and reduced empathy resulting from solitary confinement are internalized and persist after a prisoner’s release back into civil society.
In conclusion, I believe that the practice of solitary confinement should be eliminated because of numerous ethical, economic, and operative issues. Subjecting prisoners to inhumane conditions and extreme social isolation is inhumane and results in dysfunctional cognitive and behavioral patterns that undermine their ability to reenter civil society successfully. It is expensive, has no positive disciplinary effects, and even increases the likelihood of suicide and repeat offenses. The purpose of prisons has slowly shifted to reeducation and rehabilitation, and solitary confinement is counterproductive to both objectives.
Haney, C. (2018). The psychological effects of solitary confinement: A systematic critique. Annual Review of Criminology, 1, 285-310.