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The Negative Effects of Solitary Confinement on Mental Health

In the prison system, the adverse psychological, physical, and emotional effects of the absence of social contact and interaction with others relate to the premise of understanding the theoretical framework behind the main criticisms of solitary confinement that manifests into more significant issues within correctional systems today. Solitary confinement acts as a segment of imprisonment where inmates are placed in segregation from the mainstream prison population and are placed in their cells for upward of 23 hours a day, given limited opportunities. By such factors, growing criticisms have emerged within the United States regarding solitary confinement as an ineffective practice damaging to prisoners.

Despite a widely held belief from policymakers and correctional officers that solitary confinement can be a management agent for prisons, warrant safety and security, and protect other inmates, critics charge the practice as cruel and unusual punishment that violates the minimum standards of decency. Therefore, such procedure raises fundamental concerns about consequences placed on inmates, including specific symptoms like increased psychological distress. Hence, solitary confinement is considered a current issue within our criminal justice system, specifically the prison system, and in turn, affects society based on reentry from former inmates and continuous legislation debating such matters.

Considering the issues of solitary confinement trace back centuries ago, in more recent years, there has been a growing movement to reform solitary confinement through limitation and restriction. Although there is no single solution considering solitary confinement is a multifaceted and complex issue, recommendations are being developed and implemented to reduce its use and mitigate its damaging effects on prisoners. By translating research into practical recommendations, the National Institute of Justice compiled possible solutions concerning the contemporary use of segregation.

Through the common theme of limiting solitary confinement, the first proposed solution is to monitor the prison environment and institutional climate to prevent misconduct and reduce the need for segregation. Structural features and instruments such as surveillance and physical design can be utilized to analyze patterns. Therefore, officers can be proactive about situations where incidents are most likely to occur. A second recommendation is prompting correctional institutions to create a therapeutic environment by exploring high-quality programs. Through such programs, alternatives are formed, such as restorative justice programs, behavioral therapy, and community-based options, which can help address underlying issues that lead to problematic behavior. As a result of these efforts, there are lower rates of misconduct and reduced placement in segregation if offenders are engaged in cognitive-behavioral and social learning skills. A third recommendation is transforming segregation from a deprivation-centered to a therapeutic-oriented environment. However, it is relevant to first acknowledge that the harshness of solitary confinement is meant to function as an effective deterrent. Nonetheless, efforts should be pushed to ensure inmates in restrictive housing have access to adequate food, physical exercise, medical needs, mental health services, and educational materials alongside forms of stimulation to reduce deprivation. A fourth solution is to select the least restrictive option and limit segregation for extended periods. Solitary confinement should be used as a last-resort scenario. A fifth solution surrounds training prison staff. Ensuring that front-line staff members are taught core practices will allow them to work in restrictive housing units that are populated with inmates prone to behavioral infractions. Along the same lines, implementing oversight and accountability mechanisms will ensure that solitary confinement is used appropriately and prevent correctional officers from abusing their power and mistreating prisoners. A sixth solution is to replace inmates who cannot cope with segregation with other placement options to reduce harmful effects. Prison’s special populations should be subjected to screening measures to identify offenders with specific needs.

Reforming solitary confinement is crucial for maintaining inmates’ humility, dignity, and chance of rehabilitation and, therefore, a higher chance of achieving a successful reintegration into the general prison population and, for some, society.

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