This study tracked the behavior of male inmates housed in the general inmate populations of 70 different prison units from a large southern state. Each of the inmates studied engaged in violent misconduct at least once during the first 2 years of incarceration (n = 3,808). The goal of the study was to isolate the effect of exposure to short-term solitary confinement (SC) as a punishment for their initial act of violent behavior on the occurrence and timing of subsequent misconduct.
This study relied upon archival longitudinal data and employed a multilevel counterfactual research design (propensity score matching) that involved tests for group differences, event history analyses, and trajectory analyses.
The results suggest that exposure to short-term solitary confinement as a punishment for an initial violence does not appear to play a role in increasing or decreasing the probability, timing, or development future misconduct for this particular group on inmates.
Upon validation, these findings call for continued research and perhaps a dialog regarding the utility of solitary confinement policies under certain contexts. This unique study sets the stage for further research to more fully understand how solitary impacts post-exposure behavior.
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At the most extreme level, supermax housing/units may expose inmates to SC on a daily basis for extended periods of time and is commonly reserved for those considered the “worst of the worst”—see Mears and Bales (2010). Though the findings presented here may not apply to supermax inmates/facilities, it is important to acknowledge previous work that has assessed the effect of solitary confinement as an administrative control mechanism in supermax settings—e.g., Briggs et al. (2003); Sundt et al. (2008). Such findings suggest a lack of support for the idea that the use of supermax has a substantive positive impact on inmate assaults.
A reviewer appropriately questioned the rationale behind focusing on the initial act of violent misconduct as a queue to SC. The reason behind this approach was to maximize the amount of available data for this exploratory study. The prevalence of violent misconduct, which is the type of misconduct most likely to result in SC, diminishes rapidly through the initial 3 years of incapacitation. Focus on the initial act during the first year maximized the amount of available candidates (for matching purposes) while simultaneously allowing for an adequate amount of time in observation post-SC where violence and misconduct are still relatively likely. The intention here is not to downplay the potential importance of secondary and tertiary experiences with SC, but understanding the downstream effects of initial exposure to SC is here argued as worthy of a dedicated study.
Matching was also carried out using the Mahalanobis distance approach as well as using multiple neighbors. The results of the study did not change by doing so.
The data available accounted only for whether and when a penalty of SC was applied. Details on the duration of specific instances (i.e., number of days) of SC were not available.
The loss of good-time credit was accounted for in separate analyses (not shown), but had no impact on the findings presented below. However, the loss of good time may have its own effect on the probability of continued violence and should be the topic of a separate study exploring causal factors of continuity in prison violence.
Regarding preceding misconduct, the frequency of property, accountability, security, sexual, contraband, and substance-use-related infractions were taken into account. The specific infractions underlying each of these infraction categories were based on the protocol presented in Camp et al. (2003: 532).
It is also worth noting that a regular multilevel regression model was estimated that simply accounted for the solitary effect as a predictor of subsequent violence among all inmates in the sample. The parameter estimate for exposure to solitary was not significant. Results from this model can be made available upon request.
See Morris et al. (2013) for a discussion of why survival analyses involving re-offending should be explored between contexts of survivorship.
An important study by Mears and Bales (2009) found that exposure to supermax incarceration alone (but not the number of times/duration, or whether it occurred close to release) may increase the odds of violence recidivism among Florida inmates.
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The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript. Gratitude is also expressed to James W. Marquart, Alex R. Piquero, J.C. Barnes and others for valuable feedback on this study as it was in development.
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Morris, R.G. Exploring the Effect of Exposure to Short-Term Solitary Confinement Among Violent Prison Inmates. J Quant Criminol 32, 1–22 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-015-9250-0
- Solitary confinement
- Punitive segregation
- Inmate misconduct