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The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature

The effects of solitary confinement have been debated since at least the middle of the nineteenth century when both Americans and Europeans began to question the then‐widespread use of solitary confinement of convicted offenders. A sizable and impressively sophisticated literature, now largely forgotten, accumulated for more than a half century and documented significant damage to prisoners. More recently the development of supermax prisons in the United States and human rights objections to pretrial solitary confinement in Scandinavia revived interest in the topic and controversy over the findings. The weight of the modern evidence concurs with the findings of earlier research: whether and how isolation damages people depends on duration and circumstances and is mediated by prisoners’ individual characteristics; but for many prisoners, the adverse effects are substantial.