The Effects of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is a type of incarceration in which an inmate has almost no contact with anyone else for the duration of his or her sentence. Solitary confinement cells are often called a “prison within a prison” and exist to keep prisons safer in many ways. However, an extended stay in solitary confinement can take a devastating toll on mental health.


A person in solitary confinement will typically spend 23 hours of each day in an 8-foot by 10-foot cell. The cell will typically contain a bed, a toilet, and a sink. Prison staff members deliver the inmate’s meals through a small slot in the door. The inmates have one hour each day for physical activity, which typically takes place in a prison gymnasium-type room with a large cage.

The prison’s internal policies and the inmate’s behavior and reason for entering solitary confinement will determine what materials the prisoner may or may not keep in a solitary confinement cell. For example, a prisoner with a record for good behavior who enters solitary confinement for protection may have permission to keep books in his or her cell, while a prisoner sent to solitary confinement for harming other inmates or violating prison rules may not.


People are social creatures. Even the most introverted person needs human contact on a regular basis to maintain a healthy mental outlook. Researchers have scrutinized the mental health effects of solitary confinement, but nailing down the exact effects is very difficult. It is nearly impossible to compose a scientific study with human test subjects that will almost certainly cause some type of harm to the subjects.

A 1950s University of Wisconsin study on solitary confinement involved studying rhesus monkeys kept in solitary confinement. While it would be next to impossible to arrange such an experiment today, the findings of this 1950s experiment showed that the monkeys’ mental state significantly declined once they determined their situation to be hopeless. The monkeys would pace around in circles, rock themselves back and forth, hunch in corners, stare blankly ahead for long periods, and some even engaged in self-mutilation. The lead researcher in the study reported that a full year of solitary confinement would “obliterate” the animals’ social skills.

Mental health professionals and researchers typically refer to common details in solitary confinement cases to study the effects of such incarceration. After an extended time in a bare cell, the human mind will seek out sensory input. Many people in solitary confinement report hallucinations after several days. Solitary confinement can also make it more difficult to tell what time of day it is and interfere with sleeping. Mental health researchers have stated that inmates in solitary confinement are at significant risk for acute suicidal behaviors and psychosis. Studied inmates also displayed diminished social skills, problems with impulse control, hypersensitivity to external stressors, panic attacks, hallucinations, and many other overtly negative effects.


This is a long-standing question in the judicial world. Most state and federal laws prohibit solitary confinement for pregnant women, juveniles, and mentally ill prisoners, but it’s still difficult to tell exactly what effects a stint in solitary confinement will have on a person. Some prisons may require it for inmates who need protection or for those who break prison rules. If an inmate feels he or she has suffered solitary confinement unjustly, or remained confined for an inhumane amount of time, he or she may attempt to file a lawsuit for violations of the prisoner’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.