Should solitary confinement for inmates be ended?

A recent question posted to Quora asked, “should solitary confinement for inmates be ended?” Check out the selected responses below, and add your own in the comments.

No, we should not end solitary confinement. Some individuals just don't play well with others. The idea of confinement is not the problem. The problem is the conditions, treatment and duration that is part of the solitary confinement experience. Situations where inmates are treated worse than animals is cruel and dehumanizing. I don't think we should stop the use of solitary confinement, I believe it should reexamined and restructured. If not, we give birth to two types of people; people that become extremely insecure, unmotivated, depressed and detached to where it is almost impossible to transition back into society or people that become "institutional monsters" and never leave solitary confinement. 

I have been in solitary confinement and I'v experienced both sides. On one hand, I was ready to give up and rebel because I felt as if I would always be treated "bad" whether I was good or not. One the other hand, I started to feel extreme depression and insecurity. This was after only two months. I can only imagine how people feel that endure solitary for many years.  – David Monroe, San Quentin Inmate


Yes, for the vast majority of inmates, solitary confinement should be ended. Especially the way it's practiced in most places that use solitary confinement.

Let me begin by noting a simple truth: Most inmates in our prisons will get out eventually. Very few people spend their entire lives in prison. Meaning, of course, that most inmates are eventually going to be living among us again. A rational society needs to consider this, and even if someone doesn't care one bit about the inmates, people should care about themselves and their own family and neighbors who will be living alongside the inmates when the inmates come back to live among us.

Who do you want living next door to you? Who do you want walking around the mall while your children shop there? Who do you want behind you on the sidewalk? The choices we make about how to treat inmates while they are incarcerated will be the choices we make for the above questions.

There is no escaping that simple truth, and if we continue to make bad choices about treatment of inmates then we may as well stop complaining about what those inmates do once they are living next door to us. If our desire to punish and be insensitive toward inmates outweighs our concern about protecting ourselves and our families, we need to just admit it and cease acting indignant about recidivism.

The application of solitary confinement doesn't just target the most dangerous inmates and the ones who cannot be otherwise trusted around other people. That's the way folks tend to imagine it happens, but the truth is that solitary confinement is used as punishment for all manner of infractions by inmates. Solitary confinement used against chronic institutional infractions is a sorry replacement for the sort of real psychological help and anger management therapy that would be most effective for most of the inmates being put into solitary confinement. Often, the solitary confinement is in fact accentuating the violent and undisciplined behavior of the inmates, not mitigating it.

I do realize that there are some offenders so violent and uncontrollable, that they simply cannot be trusted around other people in a regular fashion. However, the use of restraints while still letting the inmate be around other people at times, coupled with placement of the inmate into a clinical environment that's more appropriate for someone who -- if truly so bad they are a danger to all other people -- must suffer from mental illness of some sort (even psychopathy, for example, is far better treated in a medical clinical setting than a prison). Moderate solitary confinement, the duration of which is limited to only certain periods of the day (like nighttime, and certain periods in between meals, therapy, and being allowed among other inmates/patients albeit with the use of restraints), would succeed in protecting others while not committing the mistakes of current solitary confinement methods that just make the inmates more dangerous and more mentally and emotionally unbalanced.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that our prisons are stuffed full of people who shouldn't be there to begin with -- drug possession is by far the most common offense of persons arrested in the USA (just marijuana possession arrests alone account for more arrests than all violent crimes combined in the U.S., for example, and marijuana possession arrests are the majority of ALL drug arrests in the country -- these facts can be confirmed by the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, published annually).

Besides drug offenses, we fill our prisons and jails with many other non-violent offenders as well. But there are only so many prisons/jails, and only so many beds in those prisons/jails, so the only way to keep making room for the millions of people arrested each & every year for simple drug possession is to empty the beds occupied by current inmates.

When emptying beds, people with less time to serve get out faster, of course. And who might have less time to serve? Sex offenders. In many states, the penalties for child molestation are less than for drug possession. In many states, the penalties for rape are less than for drug possession. Go to the sex offender registry for your state right now, and put in your address to see how many convicted sex offenders live within one mile of your home. I'd bet that almost every person who reads this and attempts this simple experiment will find that at least 6 sex offenders live within one mile of their homes.

We are emptying our prisons of sex offenders and other violent criminals, to make room for all of the vast numbers of drug offenders we keep arresting year after year. If we didn't pack our jails and prisons with drug users and other non-violent offenders, we'd have ample room and resources to deal far more effectively with violent offenders, and to keep them incarcerated far longer, as they should be. It would be easier to keep inmates in smaller groups in wider areas, making it easier to control their behavior and to stop problems as soon as they arise. When a handful of guards have to watch 100 men at a time, it's easier for someone to get hurt than if those same guards only had to watch 10 or 20 men, tops. And I strongly suspect it would be far less necessary to use solitary confinement.

Just remember: These people WILL eventually get out of prison, and they WILL come live with us in society. The question we have to ask ourselves is, who do we want them to be when they come live among us? Our choices for how to run our prisons and treat our inmates need to be motivated primarily by our answer to that question. – Mark Hughes, Screenwriter


In every prison I've ever been in (as a Consular officer, not an inmate), "solitary confinement" has been limited to one of three situations:

  • administrative punishment
  • to protect the inmate from danger from other inmates
  • to protect everyone else from a truly dangerous inmate

That's actually a pretty small percentage of the prison population, and I'm not sure how you could do much different for the second two cases.  People who are either in mortal danger or who are a mortal danger need to be segregated.

As for administrative punishment, there is of course a lot of leeway here depending on why and for how long someone is put into solitary, but it's certainly not the case that all use of segregation is automatically wrong.  

As with everything in the penal system, it's all about the details of each specific case. – John Morrow, Reader

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