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Copyright (c) 2006 The University of Chicago
Crime and Justice

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


34 Crime & Just. 441


Peter Scharff Smith


The use of solitary confinement can be traced far back 1 but became common with the rise of the modern penitentiary during the first half of the nineteenth century. The practice of isolating individual prisoners has changed significantly since then but has remained a feature of Western prison systems. A debate about the effects of solitary confinement was largely settled early in the twentieth century, when the use of large-scale solitary confinement appeared to be on the way out in most Western prison systems. Discussions on the effects of solitary confinement resurfaced in the 1950s when sensory deprivation and perceptual deprivation studies were carried out partly in reaction to stories of brainwashing of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) during the Korean War. These studies waned by the early 1970s. During the 1980s solitary confinement again regained topicality when supermax prisons caused an explosion in the use of solitary confinement. Probably much less known, pretrial solitary confinement has for many years been an integral part of Scandinavian prison practice and has in recent decades been considered a significant problem. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations regularly report on uses of isolation in prisons elsewhere: for example, in Turkey (Human Rights Watch 2001; Amnesty International 2003), Iran (Human Rights Watch 2004a), and Tunisia (Human Rights Watch 2004b). The use of isolation in connection with interrogations and the current "war on terrorism" is also well known. According to an official U.S. report, "isolation for up to ...
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