Solitary Confinement in Penal Systems: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Analysis

Friday, 14 February 2014
Regency C (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Peter Scharff Smith , Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen, Denmark
The use of large scale solitary confinement became common with the rise of the modern penitentiary during the first half of the 19th century and has remained a feature of Western prison systems. A central feature of the new prisons was a belief in the ability to rehabilitate criminals through the use of isolation regimes. In Pennsylvania-model institutions prisoners spent almost all their time in the cell. Here the inmate was supposed to turn his thoughts inward, to meet God, to repent his crimes and eventually to return to society as a morally cleansed Christian citizen. Pennsylvania-model prisons experienced extensive problems with inmate mental health throughout the 19th century but the use of large scale solitary confinement according to this model continued well into the 20thcentury in Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The debate about the effects of solitary confinement was largely settled in the 19th century in the United States and early in the 20th century in Europe, when both experts and practitioners tended to agree that solitary confinement was very harmful. Discussions on the effects of solitary confinement resurfaced in the 1950s when sensory deprivation studies were carried out in response to, among other things, stories about brainwashing of United States prisoners of war in Korea. This caught the interest of intelligence services: the CIA’s manual on Counterintelligence interrogation from 1963, for example, described how solitary confinement could be used coercively. During the 1980s, the debate on solitary confinement resurfaced in the wake of the creation of supermax prisons in the United States. According to estimates, more than 80,000 prisoners are currently held in solitary confinement or restricted housing across the US.

Notwithstanding the United States experience, isolation regimes have also been used, debated, and researched extensively elsewhere in the West. Solitary confinement has, for example, been an integral part of Scandinavian pre-trial prison practice for many years. In Denmark this practice was introduced in 1846 for all remand prisoners but became disputed and gave rise to research on the effects of solitary confinement from the late 1970s onwards. In Sweden today around half of all remand prisoners are still subjected to pre-trial solitary confinement, including children who find themselves in pre-trial detention.