Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Solitary confinement as a prison health issue

Solitary confinement as a prison health issue

Shalev, S. “Solitary confinement as a prison health issue.” In WHO Guide to Prisons and Health, edited by Stefan Enggist, Lars MøllerGauden Galea, and Caroline Udesen. Copenhagen: World Health Organization, 2014. 

This section in the WHO Guide to Prisons and Health examines how solitary confinement in prisons is a health issue due to its physical and psychological impacts on incarcerated people. The factors of solitary confinement attributed to poor health outcomes are social isolation, reduced activity and environmental input, and loss of autonomy and control in one’s daily life. The report also details the various health issues associated with restrictive housing in prison. These include physiological symptoms such as insomnia, deterioration of eyesight, and heart palpitations. Also examined at length are psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia and psychosis, and self-harm and suicide. 

This report identifies groups that are particularly vulnerable to the health risks associated with solitary confinement, including people with mental illness, juveniles, and people detained pre-trial (who in one study committed 54% of prison suicides). The WHO Guide details how international law and human rights bodies have repeatedly condemned solitary confinement and have recognized the practice’s severe health risks. It explicitly states that solitary confinement should only be used as a last resort for the shortest time possible and must provide recreation, exercise, and programming for incarcerated people to mitigate the health risks of isolation.


Click here to read the report. 

See Chapter 5: Solitary confinement as a prison health issue. 

Click here to read more about the full report.  


Keywords: isolation, health, psychological, physiological, solitary confinement, restrictive housing, WHO.