Study Raises Questions About Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinementby Philip Bulman, Marie Garcia and Jolene Hernon
A small study of administrative segregation surprised researchers with findings that were inconsistent with those from previous
A study of the psychological effects of solitary confinement in Colorado prisons showed the mental health of most inmates
did not decline over the course of the one-year study.
The NIJ-funded study assessed the effects of solitary confinement, known as administrative segregation or AS in the corrections
field. Researchers evaluated 247 men in the Colorado prison system. The sample included inmates in AS at Colorado State Penitentiary,
a "supermax" facility, and two other groups for comparison: the general prison population and residents of San Carlos Correctional
Facility, a psychiatric care prison. The sample of inmates was divided into those with mental illness and those with no mental
illness. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 59. The ethnic breakdown was 40 percent white, 36 percent Hispanic, 19 percent African-American,
4 percent Native American and 1 percent Asian.
The researchers tested three hypotheses:
- Offenders in AS would develop an array of psychological symptoms consistent with the "security housing unit syndrome," which
is characterized by free-floating anxiety, hallucinations, excitability and outbursts.
- Offenders with and without mental illness would worsen over time in AS, but mentally ill inmates would decline more rapidly
and have more serious illnesses.
- Inmates in AS would experience greater psychological decline over time than the comparison groups in the general prison population
and the psychiatric care prison.
Inmates and staff completed standardized tests at three-month intervals over the course of the one-year study. To participate
in the study, inmates had to read and write at a proficient level because the assessments were done using standardized self-administered
pencil and paper materials; no clinical psychologist interviewed the inmates. The researchers used 14 tests measuring states
such as anxiety, depression and psychosis to collect data. Clinical staff completed the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale; correctional
staff completed the Prison Behavior Rating Scale; and prisoners completed 12 self-report instruments such as the Beck Hopelessness
None of the hypotheses were borne out by the results of the study. In fact, the results showed initial improvements in psychological wellbeing in all three groups of inmates. Most of the improvement occurred between the first and second
testing periods followed by relative stability. Overall, the researchers found that 20 percent of the study sample improved
and 7 percent worsened during the study period.
Previous studies of AS and its psychological effects have produced mixed results. Some characterize the conditions as damaging
to the psychological health of prisoners, whereas others have found little evidence of harm.
The researchers noted that their findings might not apply to other prison systems. Systems that have more restrictive living
conditions and fewer treatment and other programs may have very different results. Additionally, the researchers noted that
the study was limited to literate adult men, and the findings should not be assumed to apply to juveniles, females or illiterate
men. Because participation was voluntary and required participants to be literate, the study sample may have excluded some
people who would have been more vulnerable to the stresses of solitary confinement, such as those with serious mental illnesses
or those who cannot read. Finally, because inmates were not randomly assigned to study groups, the groups — and their outcomes,
including mental health outcomes — may not be strictly comparable.
They also noted that AS may have negative effects that were not measured in the study. For example, previous research has
shown that inmates released directly from AS to the streets had dramatically higher recidivism rates than those who first
returned to the general prison population.
The Colorado study adds to the knowledge base, but it does not resolve the debate about the effectiveness of AS.
NIJ Journal No. 269, March 2012
About the Authors
Philip Bulman is a writer in NIJ's Office of Communications. Marie Garcia is a social science analyst in NIJ's Office of Research and Evaluation. Jolene Hernon is Director of NIJ's Office of Communications.
Back to the top.
For More Information
 Placement into AS or general prison conditions occurred as a function of routine prison operations. General population comparison
participants included those at risk of AS placement due to their institutional behavior.
Lovell, David, L. Clark Johnson, and Kevin C. Cain, “Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State,” Crime and Delinquency 53 (October 2007): 633-656.
Date Created: March 26, 2012