The Effects of Social Isolation on Prisoners

By Emma Harries
Social Connectedness Fellow

A controversial experiment performed by Harry Harlow in the 1950s explored social isolation by separating baby monkeys from their mothers and placing them in a “pit of despair” — a metal container from which they could not climb out.[1] After months in isolation, the monkeys exhibited mental distress and depression. The monkeys placed in partial isolation — which forbade them from forming ties with their peers — became aggressive and hostile, not only to others, but also towards their own bodies. Harlow also placed monkeys in steel chambers where they remained for 3, 6 or 12 months, without any contact with another animal, including humans. He reported that “the effects of six months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that twelve months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially.”[2]

While Harlow’s study provided useful evidence of the effects of social isolation, it sparked outrage in the United States among animal rights supporters and regulation of ethical standards of experiments.[3] People couldn’t bear the thought of monkeys locked up in metal cages for months on end, deprived of any contact with others. How, then, is it possible that human beings are continuously relegated to these exact conditions?

Solitary confinement is “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”[4] Solitary cells are miniscule metal boxes; a toilet and a bed sit inches apart, and human contact is limited to a slot in the door through which food is delivered.[5] Solitary is practiced in prisons worldwide, frequently in violation of human rights. According to the United Nations Mandela Rules, prisoners should not be confined to their cells for 22 hours a day “without meaningful human contact for more than 15 consecutive days.”[6] Yet, it is not uncommon for inmates to spend months — even decades — in solitary.[7]

In the US alone, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were being held in solitary as of 2014.[8] Of these inmates, roughly one third “were actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”[9] This aligns with studies which found that the social isolation inherent to solitary confinement causes “a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory.”[10] Solitary confinement does not “cure” prisoners; it is to their detriment.

Despite its evident harm, many remain supportive of the practice thanks to two pervasive myths. First, proponents argue that solitary is in the best interest of society, as isolating prisoners prevents them from harming others. However, a study by Dr. Robert Morris demonstrates that solitary makes prisoners no more or less likely to commit violent crimes when reintegrated back into the general population.[11] Moreover, solitary makes reintegration very difficult given it lowers one’s ability to build social connectedness with others upon release. Often, in fact, prisoners experience crippling anxiety surrounding social interaction when they are released from solitary, either “back into the larger prison community, or even more poignantly… into the larger society.”[12] Solitary, therefore, does more harm than good for society.

The second myth is that many believe prisoners are placed in solitary because they have committed the most unimaginable atrocities. Popular belief holds that they are the worst of the worst, and deserve to be locked away. However, such is not the case. Incarcerated individuals “can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity.”[13] Moreover, many end up in solitary due to untreated mental illness, are children in need of ‘protection’, are gay or transgender, report rape or abuse by prison officials, or because they are a racial minority.[14] In fact, one study found that only two per cent of prisoners in solitary actually committed an offence.[15]

In the US, mass incarceration not only remains the norm, but many argue it has become deeply conflated with race issues.[16] The situation is so grave that it has even been termed the “New Jim Crow.”[17] Though Jim Crow laws were abolished decades ago, “the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control” whereby racialized individuals are denied basic civil and human rights.[18] The New Jim Crow represents the hyper-surveillance and incarceration of black men for relatively minor drug offenses. They are “branded felons, then relegated to a permanent second-class status in which they are… subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits.”[19] The facts tell the story: black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.[20]

Similar patterns are found elsewhere. In Canada, prisons have been termed the “new residential schools,” with Indigenous peoples being grossly overrepresented.[21] While they comprise only 3.8 percent of Canada’s population, they account for 23.2 per cent of the country’s total incarcerated population.[22]

Within prisons, we can see a microcosm of this broader trend, as racialized or ethnic minority prisoners are consistently overrepresented in solitary confinement. In the United States, black men make up 40 percent of the total prison population, but constitute 45 percent of those in solitary confinement.[23] In California, Hispanics make up 42 percent of male prisoners, but 86 percent of those in solitary.[24] And in Canada, 31 percent of inmates in solitary are Indigenous and spend nearly 16 percent longer there than non-Indigenous prisoners.[25]

Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, concluded that the decision to put inmates in solitary is largely a matter of personal opinion. She argues, “minority offenders may be more likely to be perceived as a disciplinary threat by correctional officers, regardless of an offender’s actual behavior.”[26] This means minority inmates are more likely to receive misconduct reports and be placed in solitary than their fellow white inmates, even for the same behaviour. Moreover, “[S]ocial cognition studies demonstrate that we perceive ‘attitudes’ differently depending on our racial preferences.”[27] In other words, a prison guard is more likely to perceive anger coming from a non-white inmate than a white inmate.

The targeting of racialized persons by criminal justice systems, both in society and within prisons, must be addressed. To abolish racial disparities in solitary confinement, “standardizing ways to determine the appropriate punishment and use of solitary confinement could be a start,” as argued in a 2016 article in The Atlantic by Juleyka Lantigua-Williams.[28] But more importantly, due to its harrowing effects, we must question the continued use of solitary altogether. It does not rehabilitate prisoners; it lessens their humanity. It does not protect society; offenders are no less likely to commit violent crimes upon release. Essentially, all it does is serve as a system of social and racial control.

Solitary confinement is perhaps the most tangible example of social isolation. It demonstrates the distressing, often irreversible effects of isolation and the importance of connectedness, even in the darker corners of society.


[1] Harlow HF, RO Dodsworth, and MK Harlow. 1965. “Total social isolation in monkeys”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 54 (1): 90-7.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Gluck JP. 1997. “Harry F. Harlow and animal research: reflection on the ethical paradox”. Ethics & Behavior. 7 (2): 149-61.

[4] Patriquin, Martin. “Why Adam Capay has spent 1,560 days in solitary.” November 02, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Rodriguez, Sal. “FAQ.” Solitary Watch. March 08, 2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Breslow, Jason M. . “What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind?” PBS. April 22, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Criminologist Challenges the Effectiveness of Solitary Confinement.” UT Dallas. March 31, 2015.

[12] Breslow, Jason M. . “What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind?” PBS. April 22, 2014.

[13] Rodriguez, Sal. “FAQ.” Solitary Watch. March 08, 2016.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Windspeaker, David. “Solitary confinement crammed with Aboriginal inmates.” Aboriginal Multi-Media Society. 2015.

[16] Alexander, Michelle, and Cornel West. 2011. The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Alexander, Michelle. “Where Have All the Black Men Gone?” The Huffington Post. February 22, 2010.

[20] Macdonald, Nancy. “Canada’s prisons are the ‘new residential schools’.” February 22, 2016.

[21] Ibid.  

[22] Ibid. 

[23] Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka. “The Link Between Race and Solitary Confinement.” The Atlantic. December 05, 2016.

[24] Ibid.  

[25] Windspeaker, David. “Solitary confinement crammed with Aboriginal inmates.” Aboriginal Multi-Media Society. 2015.

[26] Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka. “The Link Between Race and Solitary Confinement.” The Atlantic. December 05, 2016.

[27] Ibid.  

[28] Ibid.