• Lewis Waring

Covid Confinement - Evaluating Solitary Confinement as a Criminal Punishment - Gladys Holmes

Having endured over a year now of government-imposed restrictions on personal liberty to curb the case count of covid, the general population is now able to better understand the implications of confinement. This blog will begin by exploring the historical reasoning behind solitary confinement, its effectiveness and psychological impact, and circle back to the current state of Covid-19 and what it entails for inmates who have already been deprived of many rights.

The History of Solitary Confinement

The guillotine was once considered a humane and progressive form of punishment because the death was clean and quick. While historical acts of punishment were physical, the introduction of solitary confinement was similarly seen as an alternative that would bring humanity to the field of punishment. Scholars believed that disassociation from others would remove negative influences of society, and allow time for introspection, in which inmates would begin to experience sorrow and regret their wrongs. In 1829 the first U.S penitentiary implemented isolation, and by 1830 evidence of confinement-induced harms, including psychiatric illness, disease, and death, began accumulating. Regardless of the data, in 1835, Canada opened a new penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario, that operated under confinement principles.


Initial concerns arising in 1830 have not dissipated, and in fact they have intensified. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that effects of solitary confinement become apparent after mere days, increasing with every day with up to a maximum duration of 15 days, where confinement then becomes cruel torture. As I describe below, effects manifest physically and mentally, while exacerbating an array of any pre-existing health problems.

While the evidence dictates an array of psychiatric harm, do prisoners released from solitary confinement lead a new life of reform? The evidence again negates this theory. Inmates in solitary confinement report increased thoughts of revenge and difficulties with impulse control, leading to random violence. Neuroscientific research describes the deprivations of social interaction and environmental stimulation as having irreversible consequences for physiological brain function due to sensory deprivation. The physical effects of extreme confinement entail a dramatic reduction of sun exposure to absorb vitamin D. For inmates who have been subjected to confinement for prolonged durations, the lack of vitamin D increases the risk of fractures of falls for older adults. Additionally, confinement cells hinder an individual’s ability to exercise appropriately to maintain their health and prevent future health complications.

Since 1830, the adverse bodily effects resulting from solitary confinement have been observed and studied. The United Nations General Assembly released the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, wherein Principle 7 stipulates efforts should be encouraged and undertaken to abolish solitary confinement as a punishment or see it restricted in use. Advocates for human rights have argued tirelessly for aboli