Solitary Confinement

By Ken Strutin, Published on August 10, 2010

Solitary confinement is the most extreme penalty in the hierarchy of incarcerative punishment. 1 Depending on the institution, length of detention and purpose, this "prison within prison" 2 has been described in many ways: administrative segregation, communications management unit, 3 control unit, disciplinary housing unit, the hole, intensive management unit, lockdown, punitive isolation, segregation, SHU (special housing unit, special handling unit, segregated housing unit, security housing unit), and Supermax (Super-Maximum Security Confinement). 4 And these "inner prisons," 5 have come under constitutional scrutiny by the way of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, 6 and procedural due process challenges to prison conditions and special status, e.g., death row or gang affiliation. 7

The selected materials collected here represent current research and thinking about the physical, psychological and legal implications of isolation as punishment, and the policy issues behind continuing this practice in the light of national and international standards and human rights declarations. Additional bibliographic resources are noted throughout.







1 See, e.g., Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 874 (1987)("[P]ossible punishments ranging from solitary confinement in a maximum-security facility to a few hours of mandatory community service."); United States v. Moreland, 258 U.S. 433, 449 (1922) ("The most severe punishment inflicted was solitary confinement without labor."); see generally History of Solitary Confinement, National Geographic, April 11, 2010 ("Welcome to what is probably the most severe prison environment inflicted upon American convicts, short of execution.").

2 See Moran v. Kincheloe, 1996 U.S. App. LEXIS 29023 (9th Cir. 1996) ("[S]olitary confinement for twenty-three hours per day and exercise in a segregated and small yard for one hour per day, amount to a prison within the prison.")

3 See CMUs: The Federal Prison System's Experiment in Social Isolation (Center for Constitutional Rights)

4 See generally History of Solitary Confinement, National Geographic, April 11, 2010 ("In the corrections field, they go by a multitude of names — administrative segregation, special housing units, intensive management units, supermax facilities, or simply — and perhaps most ominously — control units."); Solitary Confinement (Wikipedia) ("in British English as the 'block' or the 'cooler'.")

5 See Penrod v. Cupp, 283 Ore. 21, 25, 581 P.2d 934, 936 (1978) ("As one recent study of habeas corpus puts it: "If, for example, a prisoner is improperly put in solitary confinement . . . there seems to be no reason why he should not be able to use habeas corpus to be free from that restraint. The situation may be seen as a 'prison within a prison' and the applicant is simply released from the inner prison while being kept within the confines of the outer one." Sharpe, The Law of Habeas Corpus 149 (1976).")

6 See, e.g., Segregation and Solitary Confinement–Cruel and Unusual Punishment?, New York University's Wagner's Students for Criminal Justice Reform, March 23 2010 (panel discussion in Lives in Focus: Family Life Behind Bars).

7 See generally Relief, Under Federal Civil Rights Acts, to State Prisoners Complaining of Conditions Relating to Corporal Punishment, Punitive Segregation, or Other Similar Physical Disciplinary Measures, 18 A.L.R. Fed. 7.

8 See generally The SHU Syndrome and Community Mental Health, 12 AACP Newsletter, No. 3 (Summer 1998) ("Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian coined the term 'SHU Syndrome.' He examined a large number of prisoners during their stay in segregated, solitary confinement units and concluded that these units, like the sensory deprivation environments that were studied in the Sixties, tend to induce psychosis.")