The Worst Psychological Torture? Solitary Confinement

“Why Solitary Confinement Is The Worst Kind Of Psychological Torture” by George Dvosky at io9 outlines how solitary confinement came into use with the best of intentions, but is now understood to cause, in some cases, irreparable psychological damage.

This photo is of a recreation yard within the housing unit now referred to as the "Old Main." by Ken Piorkowski

This photo is of a recreation yard within the housing unit now referred to as the “Old Main.” by Ken Piorkowski

via io9:

There may be as many as 80,000 American prisoners currently locked-up in a SHU, or segregated housing unit. Solitary confinement in a SHU can cause irreversible psychological effects in as little as 15 days. Here’s what social isolation does to your brain, and why it should be considered torture.

There’s no universal definition for solitary confinement, but the United Nations describes it as any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others, except guards, for at least 22 hours a day. Some jurisdictions allow prisoners out of their cells for one hour of solitary exercise each day. But meaningful contact with others is typically reduced to a bare minimum. Prisoners are also intentionally deprived of stimulus; available stimuli and the fleetingly rare social contacts are rarely chosen by the prisoners, and are are typically monotonous and inconsiderate of their needs.

As for the jail cell itself, it typically measures 6′ x 10′. Nearly all scenarios for human contact, such as a guard, or medical and family visits, are done through a metal mesh, behind glass partitions, or in hand- and leg-cuffs.

Human beings are social creatures. Without the benefit of another person to “bounce off of,” the mind decays; without anything to do, the brain atrophies; and without the ability to see off in the distance, vision fades. Isolation and loss of control breeds anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.

Indeed, psychologist Terry Kupers says that solitary confinement “destroys people as human beings.” A quick glance at literature review studies done by Sharon Shalev (2008) and Peter Scharff Smith (2006) affirms this assertion; here are some typical symptoms:

  • Anxiety: Persistent low level of stress, irritability or anxiousness, fear of impending death, panic attacks
  • Depression: Emotional flatness/blunting and the loss of ability to have any “feelings”, mood swings, hopelessness, social withdrawal, loss of initiation of activity or ideas, apathy, lethargy, major depression
  • Anger: Irritability and hostility, poor impulse control, outbursts of physical and verbal violence against others, self, and objects, unprovoked angers, sometimes manifested as rage
  • Cognitive disturbances: Short attention span, poor concentration and memory, confused thought processes, disorientation
  • Perceptual distortions: Hypersensitivity to noises and smells, distortions of sensation (e.g. walls closing in), disorientation in time and space, depersonalization/derealization, hallucinations affecting all five senses (e.g. hallucinations of objects or people appearing in the cell, or hearing voices when no one is speaking
  • Paranoia and psychosis: Recurrent and persistent thoughts, often of a violent and vengeful character (e.g. directed against prison staff), paranoid ideas (often persecutory), psychotic episodes or states, psychotic depression, schizophrenia
  • Self-harm: self-mutilation and cutting, suicide attempts

Ironically, solitary confinement began with the best of intentions.

It emerged in the United States during the 1820s when it was believed that isolating prisoners would be rehabilitative. They thought that prisoners would spend their entire day alone, mostly within the confines of their cells, ruminating about their crimes while distanced from negative external influences. European and South American countries eventually adopted the practice. At the time, solitary confinement was perceived as a socially and morally progressive way to deal with punishment — and a viable alternative to the death penalty.

Solitary confinement fails as a rehabilitative measure, and as a way to “settle down” problematic prisoners. The practice actually backfires, causing prisoners to lose their ability to control their anger, which can result in a longer stint in solitary. And as the devastating laundry list of psychological disorders can attest, it needs to be called out for what it is: torture.

The United Nations agrees. Back in 2011 it issued a report claiming that long-term solitary isolation is a form of torture — a cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by international law. The report made special reference to the United States’ use of supermax prisons as a violation.

I chose a few passages from the essay. However, “Why Solitary Confinement Is The Worst Kind Of Psychological Torture” is well worth an in-depth read.

3 Comments on "The Worst Psychological Torture? Solitary Confinement"

  1. Echar Lailoken | Jul 27, 2014 at 8:49 pm |

    I blame Jeremy Bentham and the panopticon.

  2. mannyfurious | Jul 27, 2014 at 9:29 pm |

    The flip side is that the violence and constant tension of being in the general population also creates life-long trauma and psychiatric/psychological issues–many of which are named as consequences of solitary confinement.

    I’m hardly a bleeding heart on this issue. I think any criminal with a repeated history of violence has it too good in prison, generally speaking. With that said, non-violent offenders are being tortured whether they’re in solitary or not.

    • InfvoCuernos | Jul 27, 2014 at 11:58 pm |

      Yes, it really does a number on someone’s personality. I’ve known people that were total train-wreaks from being locked up. Its amazing that we still let the prisons run themselves.

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