Recent Award

Collaborative Research: Pennsylvania Solitary Confinement Study

The U.S. penal population is the largest in the world, but imprisonment in America is also distinguished by its extensive use of solitary confinement, defined as incarceration in a cell for 23 hours each day with limited access to visits from outsiders or rehabilitative programs. Solitary confinement is an important but understudied part of the experience of punishment in the United States. The scant available evidence suggests solitary confinement is associated with poor health and adjustment to society after incarceration. The current project, the Pennsylvania Solitary Confinement Study (PASS), will analyze conditions of penal confinement and their effects on health and well-being, labor force participation after prison release, and recidivism. The project will provide a multidimensional account of the conditions and effects of extreme confinement in a large U.S. prison system. The project will also improve our understanding of how solitary confinement is used, and how it may have significant and long-lasting effects. A key broader impact of the project is to enable a research-driven national policy effort to reevaluate the use and policies of solitary confinement.

Quantitative studies of the effects of solitary confinement have relied on observational data to estimate weakly-identified causal effects. The current project will use detailed statewide prison records (2007-2017) to estimate causal effects of solitary confinement on long-term outcomes, exploiting the random assignment of hearing examiners to prison misconduct cases. It combines field surveys of incarcerated men and prison staff in a solitary confinement unit with a quantitative state-wide analysis of administrative prison records. The longitudinal survey data collection combines an analysis of prison records, a survey and neurocognitive battery administered to incarcerated men (N=117, including a main sample of 99 and a pretest sample of 18) recently admitted to solitary confinement and then three months later, and interviews with prison staff (N=22). Analysis of this quasi-experiment will yield estimates of the effect of solitary confinement on employment and recidivism. Because prior research on solitary confinement has been based on clinical interviews with small samples often in the context of litigation, the survey extends research by collecting data at scale with a standardized instrument. Survey responses at two points in time allows a comparison of the conditions of solitary confinement with the general prison population. Thematic analysis of interview transcripts will illuminate the relationship between prisoners and staff and shed light on the mechanisms by which solitary confinement produces long-term impacts. The proposed study will contribute new data and analysis for policymakers and scholars seeking to understand and address the conditions of penal confinement in the United States.

Principal Investigator: 

Bruce Western

Co-Director, Justice Lab
Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice; Chair, Department of Sociology

Home Department: 


Friday, June 15, 2018 to Monday, May 31, 2021

Research Category: 




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