Solitary Confinement and the Well-Being of People in Prison

Published In

Social Science & Medicine

Document Type


Publication Date



Background Solitary confinement and mental well-being has been researched extensively, with a significant increase in studies over the last ten years. These recent studies produce mixed evidence for whether placement in solitary confinement is associated with psychological distress. We advance our understanding of these relationships in two critical ways. First, we conduct both between- and within-person analyses within the same data to better understand the relationship of solitary confinement and mental well-being relative to the well-being of people in less restrictive prison settings. Second, we ask the men in our sample questions about their personality style, coping strategies, and interactions with staff, which allows us to explore how individual characteristics and prison experiences matter, alongside isolation, in understanding mental well-being. Methods We gather data from interviews at three time points with 122 men in solitary confinement and 204 men in other conditions of confinement in Arizona from 2017 to 2019. We merge these interview data with administrative data on study sample and population sample to include critical measures such as mental health score, risk level, and visitation status. Our interviews contain a Global Severity Index (GSI), created from 90 self-reported psychopathological symptoms experienced, that we use to assess well-being. We estimate cross-classified multilevel models to assess between-person differences and within-person change in well-being over time. Results There was a small relationship between solitary confinement and worsening well-bring (longitudinal, within-person) and a small relationship between solitary confinement and worse well-being (cross-sectional, between-person), with this between-person association reduced significantly upon inclusion of additional individual characteristics and prison experiences. Conclusions Our results suggest that the incarceration experience, including conditions of confinement, is associated with mental well-being in different ways for different people. We believe that collective confinement and well-being could receive the same scholarly attention and public concern as solitary confinement.


© 2023 Elsevier Ltd.



Persistent Identifier