From Solitary to Society

The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.
Samarth Gupta


Five Mualimm-ak spent 2,054 days wasting in isolated confinement in the New York City prison system. Neither judge nor jury put him there, rather, an endless stream of “tickets” from prison guards. These tickets were not for major offenses like instigating violence in the prison yard or striking an officer, but for seemingly minor infractions. Mualimm-ak drew portraits to stay sane in prison, but he had too many pencils—a ticket. He also had too many postal stamps in his cell—a ticket. He ate a whole apple, including its seeds, which contain arsenic—a ticket. The next time, he fearfully left his apple on his tray, thereby “refusing to eat”—a ticket.

In an interview with the HPR, Mualimm-ak said he still considers himself lucky. When the Innocence Project, a non-profit that aims to exonerate innocent individuals through DNA testing, eventually proved that his original conviction was wrong, he was taken straight from solitary confinement to a bus heading to Times Square. There, he had family and a psychiatrist waiting to take care of him. Mualimm-ak had already begun working with a publisher to tell his story, so he had a support system ready for him. The 15 others on his bus who had also spent time in solitary confinement were not as lucky. Within a year of stepping foot in Times Square, five of them had committed suicide.


An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners in America spend about 23 hours a day alone inside an 80 square foot cell, known officially as “administrative segregation” and colloquially as “the box.” For many prisoners, this isolation is not a matter of hours or days, rather months and years. Studies have shown that the average time spent in solitary units is as long as five years in some states.

This extended isolation has detrimental effects on prisoners. University of California, Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney found that extended solitary confinement caused “hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depressions, and suicidal thoughts and behavior” in prisoners. Another study found that four years in solitary confinement caused a noticeable decrease in electroencephalography (EEG), a measure of electrical activity in the brain, which is indicative of sensory deprivation. Research done by Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, confirmed that “even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern toward an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium.” The “inadequate environmental stimulation” in solitary can lead to the permanent harm of “a continued intolerance of social interaction” that prevents an inmate from reintegrating into the larger prison population and into society.

Mualimm-ak told the HPR that there is “no such thing as a positive reintegration into society: everyone leaves damaged.” He said this damage occurs in two stages. First, prisoners in solitary confinement experience “a lack of human validation,” which “places permanent mental damage on a person.” Second, inmates become paranoid, hallucinogenic, and suffer from mental illness in solitary. According to Mualimm-ak, who now works in advocacy, many prisoners have a fear that the prison or prison guards could kill them and no one would ever find out.

This psychological harm of solitary is exacerbated by the fact that many people in solitary confinement already had prior mental health issues. The New York Correctional Association reports that as of 2004, 23 percent of its prisoners in special housing units (SHU), the administrative term for solitary, were also on the mental health caseload. According to a survey of those in SHUs, nearly a third of prisoners had prior psychiatric hospitalizations, over one-half had suffered from depression, and about 28 percent are diagnosed with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The report also found that the average SHU sentence for mentally ill prisoners is six times longer than that of other prisoners. In the 1995 case Madrid v. Gomez, Federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson compared placing the mentally ill in such isolation to “putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.”

With such mental health problems, suicide is a growing concern for solitary confinement prisoners. Dr. Raymond Patterson, who was appointed by California to find ways to lower prison suicide, found that inmates in California’s solitary units were 33 times more likely to commit suicide than were other inmates. Furthermore, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that in 2004, 73 percent of all suicides in California prisons occurred in isolation units, although these units accounted for only 10 percent of the state’s prison population. A study in New York showed similar results: per capita, five times as many suicides occurred in solitary confinement as compared to the general prison population. However, even for those who survive solitary confinement and leave prison, obstacles to a stable life still remain.


Of the tens of thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement, thousands go straight from the box back to the streets. A survey by NPR and The Marshall Project found that in the 24 states which maintained records, at least 10,000 prisoners were released straight from solitary confinement. When taking the other 26 states into account, that number is undoubtedly higher. Without re-entry programs, these prisoners face challenges reintegrating into society.

One concern about prisoners leaving straight from solitary is recidivism. Analysts for the Texas Legislative Budget Board found that more than 60 percent of prisoners released from solitary were rearrested within three years of their release, compared to 49 percent of the overall prisoner population. These results extend to other states, as well. Studies in Washington and California found that recidivism rates for those leaving solitary were as much as 35 percent higher than those of prisoners who had not been held in solitary confinement.

These conclusions on recidivism may draw statistical scrutiny—perhaps solitary confinement was not the causal mechanism for the differing rates. One could argue that those in solitary were more likely to be rearrested than their peers regardless of their cell conditions. These prisoners could be more mentally unstable, more violent, or more rebellious, which is why they were in solitary in the first place. However, solitary could also have been the trigger for an inmate becoming more mentally unstable, more violent, or more rebellious. Without the data tracking each individual prisoner, reaching a definite conclusion on the relationship between recidivism and solitary confinement proves challenging. Still, multiple studies point to a clear association between solitary confinement and higher recidivism rates.

Even the ex-solitary confinement prisoners who do not find themselves behind bars again struggle in society because of time spent away from social interaction and because of a lack of opportunity in prison. In his research, UC Santa Cruz’s Haney found that those in extended solitary feel an “unprecedented totality of control” and become dependent on their prison. The general population inmates still have the ability and the necessity to organize their time and make decisions, but for those in solitary, prison administrators make those decisions for them. Those in solitary struggle to “structure their lives around activity and purpose” because they have no opportunities to do so. They also lose the ability “to socially construct their identity” because of their limited interaction with other people. Without this structure and possibly without a support network outside of the prison, these former prisoners are vulnerable in society.

Haney also found that these prisoners become “disoriented and even frightened” by social interactions after spending little time with other prisoners and with few visitation hours. This undermined social ability makes it more challenging for a prisoner to reestablish a family life and to become part of the labor force. Dave’s Killer Bread, a bakery based in Oregon, helps to ease this transition by intentionally hiring people with criminal backgrounds. Today, about one in three of its 300 employees has a criminal background. Gina Delahunt, the Director of Human Relations, told the HPR that “individuals with criminal backgrounds perform as well as those who don’t have a criminal background,” according to a study done by Dave’s and Portland State University. Delahunt believes that employing ex-inmates can combat recidivism and that “businesses have the power to create meaningful, lasting change for people with criminal backgrounds and society as a whole.”

However, prisoners in solitary confinement still face additional challenges when seeking employment. These challenges not only exist because of the decay of a prisoner’s mental health and social skills, but also because of the lack of rehabilitation opportunities within solitary. Haney refers to solitary as a “rehabilitationless period,” for prisoners have little access to work, substance abuse classes, vocational training, or educational opportunities.


Recently, some states have acknowledged the negative consequences of solitary confinement and have attempted to reform their solitary policies. New York has agreed to decrease the number of prisoners in solitary and also reduce the reasons and length of time for which prisoners can spend in solitary. California has agreed to stop placing prisoners in solitary simply for gang affiliations and has agreed to review over 3,000 cases of prisoners in solitary. In 2014, a total of 10 states adopted reforms for solitary confinement.

In Massachusetts, State Senator Jamie Eldridge has sponsored legislation that would require a hearing every 15 days an inmate is in solitary and would give more rights to prisoners in solitary confinement. In an interview with the HPR, Eldridge said that in Massachusetts, “rather embarrassingly, we have one of the most outdated prison systems in the country both in terms of solitary confinement but also the lack of vocational or educational programs in the prison.” He also laments the fact that “many prisoners [are] being released right from solitary out to the community if they’ve served their sentence with no interlude to re-socialize them.” To remedy this issue, Eldridge has proposed creating a buffer of at least six months, consisting of education and reintegration programs, before a prisoner goes from solitary confinement to society.

On the national scale, President Barack Obama recently implemented reforms to the federal use of solitary confinement. His executive actions prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles who commit “low-level infractions” and reduce the time a prisoner can spend in solitary after his first infraction from 365 days to 60 days.

Still, for now, Mualimm-ak says, “this type of reintegration is hard because there is no such thing as a positive reintegration back to society.” After being exonerated, he was given $40 and a bus ticket by a guard and dropped off at Times Square. Then, along with “20 million commuters, you have to navigate your way to make it to parole, and then the panic attacks.” Mualimm-ak has been lucky, with support networks to help him overcome the panic. But he is an exception, as he has been able to reclaim a fulfilling life in the outside world. All too many of his peers are unemployed, re-imprisoned, or dead in part because of their time in solitary. “[Even the lucky ones] are not survivors,” Mualimm-ak added. “You ask them how much they’ve deteriorated.”

Image Credit: Des Byrne/Flickr