A new study of emotions and solitary confinement

A new study starting this week by Wolfson College Junior Research Fellow, Dr Ben Laws, will focus on understanding the pathways of development for prisoners who experience solitary confinement. 

Solitary confinement

New research, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) which begins this week will examine the key dynamics of the emotional world of solitary confinement. The idea is to understand how prisoners get suck in solitary confinement, how they get out again, and how the experience of ‘deep confinement’ shapes their lives.  

Don’t we already know that solitary confinement is just bad practice? 

Interestingly, though there is a spate of research on the oppressive effects of segregation, the experience of solitary confinement is not uniform. In fact, some prisoners have quite transformative experiences—even if they are in the minority. The importance of this fact is not to advocate for isolation, but rather to highlight that we don’t exactly understand how segregation plays a role in the individual change process. 

Looking for emotions

There’s been a rejuvenation of interest in researching emotions and increasing recognition that emotions are essential to human behaviour.  It’s surprising that emotions have typically been left out of studies of imprisonment and segregation because they are such ‘charged’ environments, where intense feelings are often on display. This study seeks to understand the specific ways prisoners manage their emotions and the prevalence of different feeling states. Looking for emotions can help us learn more about the underlying dynamics of transformation. Recent strands of research show that emotions play an essential role in shaping social life and the dynamics of why offenders desist from crime.  

Changes over time

Much research on segregation has been cross-sectional, but little is known about the patterns of emotional development of these sub-groups over time. Through repeated discussions with, and observations of prisoners, this study will examine how prisoners develop (or get ‘stuck’). This will include understanding how cycles of infractions in segregation can amplify violence and cycles of despair. But will also attempt to explain triumphsas well as tragedies, and the possibilities for transformation, healing and locating hope. 

Ben is an ESRC New Investigator at the Prisons Research Centre, University of Cambridge. You can watch a recent talk he gave on the subject of emotions in prison on YouTube, and follow him on Twitter @Ben_Laws.

Image: Solitary Confinement.