Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Infamous punishment: The psychological effects of isolation

Infamous punishment: The psychological effects of isolation

Craig Haney, “Infamous punishment: The psychological effects of isolation,” National Prison Project Journal, 8, no. 2 (1993), 3-21 

This journal article published by the National Prison Project confronts the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and examines the psychological impacts of enforced long-term isolation. Haney illustrates the living conditions and methods of control used on incarcerated people in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU)Haney characterizes these conditions by distorted and sometimes abusive interactions with correctional staff, the cells’ design that’s meant to maximize social isolation and minimize privacy, and the forced idleness that deprives incarcerated people of meaningful routines or interactions. 

Haney addresses the adaptations these incarceration people often experience due to these conditions of isolation. Forced to prescribe to a particular and unchanging routine and state of behavior, those in solitary confinement may lose their ability to limit their own behavior or initiate any exercise of freedom. This creates a complete dependency on the institution that can persist after release, as they are stripped of any opportunity to dictate their own actions and behaviors. Another adaptation observed in many incarcerated people in Security Housing Units is social withdrawal to cope with the extreme forced deprivation of social contact and idleness. The absence of social contact in SHUs also creates an “air of unreality to one’s existence,” which may lead to individuals acting out for the sole purpose of eliciting a reaction. This journal article notes the clinical syndromes incarcerated people may develop in isolation and explains that those who enter these conditions with pre-existing mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders are more vulnerable to the psychological harms of isolation. 

Click here to read the journal article.

Keywords: solitary confinement, restrictive housing, SHU, security housing unit, mental illness, psychological harm, isolation, California.