Is Solitary Confinement a Punishment?

37 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2020 Last revised: 29 Oct 2020

See all articles by John F. Stinneford

John F. Stinneford

University of Florida Levin College of Law

Date Written: May 19, 2020


The United States Constitution imposes a variety of constraints on the imposition of punishment, including the requirements that the punishment be authorized by a preexisting penal statute and ordered by a lawful judicial sentence. Today, prison administrators impose solitary confinement on thousands of prisoners despite the fact that neither of these requirements has been met. Is this imposition a “punishment without law,” or is it a mere exercise of administrative discretion? In an 1890 case called In re Medley, the Supreme Court held that solitary confinement is a separate punishment subject to constitutional restraints, but it has ignored this holding in recent decades, treating the imposition of solitary confinement as though it were a mere act of administrative discretion. This Essay asks whether the Medley Court or the modern Court is correct as a matter of constitutional law and concludes that the Medley Court is correct.

Keywords: solitary confinement, punishment, criminal law, criminal procedure, prison law, incarceration, ex post facto, double jeopardy, 5th Amendment, 8th Amendment, torture, self-incrimination

Suggested Citation

Stinneford, John F., Is Solitary Confinement a Punishment? (May 19, 2020). 115 Nw. U. L. Rev. 9 (2020), University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 20-40, Available at SSRN:

John F. Stinneford (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

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