Center on Sentencing and Corrections

The body in isolation: The physical health impacts of incarceration in solitary confinement

The body in isolation: The physical health impacts of incarceration in solitary confinement

Strong, Justin D., Keramet Reiter, Gabriela Gonzalez, Rebecca Tublitz, Dallas Augustine, Melissa Barragan, Kelsie Chesnut, Pasha Dashtgard, Natalie Pifer, and Thomas R. Blair. “The body in isolation: The physical health impacts of incarceration in solitary confinement.” PloS one 15, no. 10 (2020).

This report examines the harmful impacts of solitary confinement on incarcerated peoples’ physical health by using a mixed-methods approach. Using 2017 data (including interviews, Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale assessments, reviews of medical and disciplinary history, and paper surveys) of incarcerated people in the Washington State Department of Corrections system, the study addresses the correlation of long-term solitary confinement with impairments to physical health. This study establishes that solitary confinement’s adverse effects extend beyond mental health and seriously impede on somatic health as well.  

The study finds that in 2017, 15 percent of sampled incarcerated people in solitary confinement experienced clinically significant somatic concernsIn 2018, this statistic decreased to 12.5 percent according to follow-up data collectionSpecific physical health effects associated with solitary confinement that are examined in this study include skin irritations and weight fluctuation, un-treated and mistreated chronic conditions, and musculoskeletal pain. 

In analyzing the physical health impairments caused and exacerbated by solitary confinement, this study contributes to the understanding of health disparities incarcerated people face as a result of restrictive conditions. The multi-method research model supports this study’s finding that solitary confinement poses a serious physical health risk by exacerbating previous health issues and creating new ones. This report importantly addresses the impact on incarcerated people of color, who are more likely to experience somatic symptoms and impairments because they are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement. 

Click here to view the study. 

Keywords: physical, health, WADOC, Washington, somatic, populations, BRPS, medical problems,