Center on Sentencing and Corrections

The Science of Solitary: Expanding the Harmfulness Narrative

The Science of Solitary: Expanding the Harmfulness Narrative

Haney, Craig. “The Science of Solitary: Expanding the Harmfulness Narrative.” Northwestern University Law Review 115, no. 1 (2020), 211-256. 

This journal article published in the Northwestern University Law Review articulates the harmful effects of solitary confinement in correctional facilities. It presents the history of restrictive housing in United States prison systems, including its increased use with the establishment of modern-day supermax prisons. As prisons began relying more on solitary confinement, there was an increase in evidence-based literature establishing the physical and psychological damage caused by this practice. This article affirms that the multitude of scientific studies that prove the adverse effects of solitary confinement sufficiently debunk any claims that restrictive housing is a safe or unharmful practice. 

Haney contextualizes the harms of solitary confinement within a larger study of the adverse and potentially life-threatening effects of social isolation.  He notes the evidence that suggests isolation could lead to depressive symptoms, reduced cognitive functioning, and decreased intellectual functioning in humans. The deprivation of human touch, social inclusion, and meaningful cognitive stimulation perpetuate the harmful psychological and physical impacts of solitary confinement and situate the criminal justice issue of prolonged restrictive housing within the larger evidence-based study of social isolation. 

The article concludes by affirming that the adverse effects of solitary confinement persist even after release from isolation. They most notably result in difficultly reintegrating into society due to permanent incapacitation of the ability to form connections with other people. 

Click here to read the journal article. 


Keywords: solitary confinement, restrictive housing, prison, social isolation, psychological harm, physical harm, cognitive functioning, intellectual functioning, psychological research, studies on the harms of solitary.