Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Is Solitary Confinement a Punishment?

Is Solitary Confinement a Punishment?

Stinneford, John F. “Is Solitary Confinement a Punishment?” Northwestern University Law Review 115, no. 1 (2020), 9-44. 


This journal article published in the Northwestern University Law Review examines the differentiation between “punishment” and “administrative discretion” as it applies to solitary confinement. Since punishment cannot be imposed unless it is authorized by a preexisting penal statue and is ordered by a lawful judicial sentence, this article argues that solitary confinement is wrongfully used by prison administrators without this mandatory due process.  

Stinneford presents an analysis of American legal history, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision In re Medley that solitary confinement is a form of punishment rather than a matter of administrative discretion. The article reaffirms this court decision by arguing that solitary confinement meets the conditions that amount to a punishment, as it is “historically used as a heightened form of punishment” and “inflict[s] substantial suffering beyond what is normally imposed by a prison sentence.” 

The article concludes by analyzing the history of solitary confinement in the United States, including its growth in the nineteenth century, its pause once its harmful psychological and physical effects became known, and its resurgence in the late twentieth century with the rise of supermax prisons. Stinneford outlines the damaging impacts of solitary confinement, and subsequently affirms that these harms sufficiently prove that the practice of solitary confinement is an additional punishment that doesn’t fall within the administrative discretion of prison officials to impose. 

Click here to read the journal article. 


Keywords: solitary confinement, restrictive housing, administrative segregation, punishment, administrative discretion, court decision, prison isolation, cruel and unusual punishment, Eighth Amendment, 8th Amendment