According to the Oxford Dictionary, solitary confinement is defined as “the isolation of a prisoner in a separate cell as punishment,” Not only does the United States imprison more citizens than any other country in the world, but the US correctional system places the largest amount of prisoners in solitary confinement (Cloud, Browne, Drucker, & Parsons, 2015, p. 18). According to the definition of solitary confinement, it is used as a punishment, but what other reasons does our criminal justice use to support this practice?
One researcher explains that this practice is also used to separate the general prison population from the population of violent criminals who may be a risk to others (Cloud et al. , 2015, p. 19). However there is another side to solitary confinement, which is the damage that it causes. According to one researcher, solitary confinement not only restricts prisoners from having contact with the world outside of prison but it also restricts their socialization within the prison walls (Marcus, 2015, p. 1160).
Another researcher would even go as far as to say that putting prisoners in solitary confinement is essentially burying them alive (Ridgeway, 2013, p. 31). Therein lies the problem with the effects of solitary confinement. Using solitary confinement practices, our criminal justice system isn’t setting up prisoners to successfully reintegrate back into the community after their release (Cloud et al. 2015, Gordon 2013, Liebelson 2015, Marcus 2015, Mears 2005, Mears & Banes 2009, Pizarro & Narag 2008, Pizarro, Haugebrook, & Zgoba 2014, Ridgeway 2013, Stroud 2012).
As mentioned above, the main concern reflected in the research of the effects of solitary confinement points to the struggle that prisoners have with (Cloud et al. 2015, Gordon 2013, Liebelson 2015, Marcus 2015, Mears 2005, Mears & Banes 2009, Pizarro & Narag 2008, Pizarro, Haugebrook, & Zgoba 2014, Ridgeway 2013, Stroud 2012). However, reintegration is a broad topic and can be broken down to better understand this problem within our correctional system.
When prisoners have problems with reintegration this leads to higher rates of recidivism (Gordon 2013, Mears 2005, Mears & Bales 2009, Pizarro & Narag 2008, Pizarro et al. 2014). The main reason behind recidivism is that solitary confinement does not provide these prisoners with the correct skills needed to reintegrate in a way that leads them away from crime. Our system, instead, believes that if we keep prisoners in solitary confinement it will be a deterrent, (Mears 2005, Mears & Bales 2009, Pizarro & Narag 2008, Pizarro et al. 014) which is unrealistic.
As a whole, if our system is trying to be truly correctional then high recidivism rates do not display that the goal is being met. Not only are recidivism rates higher after being in solitary confinement, but our correctional system is setting prisoners up for failure when it comes to their social and interaction skills as well as community relations (Adkins 2013, Gallagher 2014, Gordon 2013, Mears 2005, Liebelson 2015, Steinbuch 2014).
What this research is suggesting is that because solitary confinement keeps inmates locked alone in a cell for anywhere between twenty two to twenty four hours a day, they lose that person to person interaction (Gordon 2013, Mears 2005, Steinbuch 2014). While in solitary confinement, the prisoners are lucky if they get to interact with the officer that brings them their meal. Mears describes this idea that we make loners out of our prisoners (2005). Essentially, this research describes that their social skills start deteriorating little by little the longer they stay in solitary confinement.
So then, how can prisoners be expected to be immediately released from prison and successfully interact appropriately with others and merge back into their community? This task in nearly impossible for many prisoners. The last part of the reintegration problem is the mental health issues that stem from time spent in solitary confinement (Gallagher 2014, Liebelson 2015, Marcus 2015, Pizarro & Narag 2008, Pizarro et al. 2014, Ridgeway 2013, Stroud 2012). If a prisoner comes in with prior mental health issues, this research demonstrates that it will get even worse when exposed to solitary confinement.
On the other end of the spectrum though, is those who come in with good mental health but slowly deteriorate while in solitary confinement (Gallagher 2014, Gordon 2013, Pizarro & Narag 2008, Pizarro et al. 2014, Ridgeway 2013, Stroud 2012). This is a problem because our prisoners are not getting those with mental health issues the help that they need before release. If these prisoners are not receiving the mental health treatment they need to function, they cannot be expected to perform to their full potential upon release.
It is clear that the effects of solitary confinement cause reintegration problems for prisoners; so then, what is the solution? According to much of the research, our criminal justice system needs to push a more rehabilitative approach for prisoners while they are serving their sentence (Cloud et al. 2015, Gordon 2013, Herzing 2015, Kelsall 2014, Steinbuch 2014, Wright & Cesar 2013). The goal of this solution is to fix the problems of reintegration and use community involvement to make it easier for prisoners to merge back into their societies and communities successfully.
A big question in this area of research when it comes to the solution is whether or not our system should completely eliminate the use of solitary confinement and use a one hundred percent rehabilitation approach or if we system limit the use of solitary confinement because perhaps our prisons most violent criminals need solitary confinement. As mentioned above, much of the research that looks into finding a solution for easier and more successful reintegration pushes for the idea of a more rehabilitative approach in prisons (Cloud et al. 015, Gordon 2013, Steinbuch 2014, Wright & Cesar 2013).
The idea with this rehabilitative approach is to correct the behaviors that got the prisoners into trouble in the first place. It is common knowledge that there is always a reason behind peoples’ actions so it important from a rehabilitative standpoint to find out why the behavior occurred and to correct it in the future. A good rehabilitation program will motivate and support the prisoners, push for a behavioral change, and therefore will overall reduce recidivism rates (Cloud et al. 015, Steinbuch 2014, Wright & Cesar 2013).
Although there is much research that points away from solitary confinement, it is possible that in some cases it may be appropriate for shorter periods of time to keep the general population safe from risk of violent offenders. (ADD THE CITIATIONS FOR THIS) In particular one researcher, Diane Kelsall discusses the idea that solitary confinement should be used only in circumstances that are exceptional and in which it is for a short amount of time (2014).