Solitary Confinement: Definition & Effects

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  • 0:03 Solitary Confinement: Defined
  • 2:50 Doing Time in Solitary
  • 3:40 Effects of Solitary…
  • 4:52 Recent Changes in the…
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we'll define and discuss solitary confinement and the situations in which it is employed. We'll also discuss the effect it has on prisoners and recent challenges made to its widespread use.

Solitary Confinement: Defined

If you're a fan of Orange is the New Black or perhaps a few other popular television dramas or films that depict life in prison, you've probably heard of the hole, or solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is the separation of prisoners from the rest of the prison population. This means that a prisoner placed in solitary confinement would be in a cell alone. He or she would also eat alone, and any time outside of the cell would be spent alone as well. Visitors and personal effects are prohibited as well.

Solitary confinement is often used as a punitive measure for major infractions committed by prisoners while they are in prison. For instance some facilities may refer to the use of solitary confinement as 'administrative segregation' (referred to as ad-seg) or 'restricted housing' for a person who poses a major security risk or has attacked a correctional officer or prisoner. Solitary may also be used for a prisoner who tried to escape, started a riot, or concealed a weapon. These inmates may be referred to as needing 'special management.'

Generally speaking, individuals who are in prison are not sent directly to any form of solitary immediately upon their arrival to the institution. A prisoner is usually housed among the other prisoners until an infraction occurs. An exception to this would be a particularly dangerous criminal, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson. High profile criminals are considered to be at risk of violence from other prisoners and so are separated immediately. This act of separating a prisoner for protection is known as protective custody, or PC. In many institutions, protective custody is highly similar, if not synonymous with, 'administrative segregation' in a 'secure housing unit' (or SHU). However, in PC, the inmate's personal effects are not as restricted, though visitations may still be limited.

In addition to high profile criminals, persons who worked in law enforcement, as corrections officers, or as politicians prior to incarceration are likely to be placed in protective custody as assaulting these individuals would increase an inmate's social status. Inmates who are known to have committed crimes of a sexual nature against children are also frequent targets for violence in the prison population and may be placed in PC as well.

Some inmates may be removed from the general population and placed in PC as well. For example, if an inmate is thought to have reported on another inmate for an infraction, his life may be in danger. Inmates who are fearful for their own safety for reasons that might not be known by correctional administrators may deliberately fight another inmate to be placed in administrative segregation or protective custody, in effect deliberately sending themselves to solitary confinement for their own protection.

Doing Time in Solitary

An inmate destined for solitary confinement would be removed from his cell and sent to a different wing of the prison where other administrative segregation (ad-seg) inmates are housed. Out-of-cell time is typically limited to one hour per day at most, interaction with other inmates is eliminated, as is recreation time and any visitation. Personal belongings are removed. This means an inmate is alone and left with nothing to occupy his or her mind.

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