The Hidden Harm of Solitary Confinement

By Hannah Comiskey

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many across 2020 felt the boredom, the frustration and the sheer mundaneness of social isolation. Experienced in the form of social-distancing or precautionary quarantines, these periods of solitude were a novelty for many of us. Standing as a short-lived pause on our lives, our solitude was made somewhat bearable by Netflix bingeing or the whirlpool of TikTok entertainment. However, for the 80,000 people held in solitary confinement in any given day across US prisons alone, this lack of social contact and exposure to the outside world is a grim and long-lasting reality. One which is un-cushioned by the escapism of social media and in some cases, even an end date. 

Most prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement in the US remain there for one to three months, and nearly a quarter of these prisoners spend over a year in isolation. Confined to a concrete box for 23 hours of every day, often without a window and encased by solid steel doors, these people are being left to rot in conditions which have been described by psychiatrists as distressing as physical torture. And with both common sense and neuroscientific evidence pointing to the devastating damage of prolonged social isolation on the human psyche, it is a practise which is as unethical as it is unproductive to any wider goal of rehabilitation. Solitary confinement stands as a barrier not a building block in sentences where the ultimate goal remains reintegration into society. And on a deeper level, it fundamentally fails to consider prisoners as people. 

An extreme example of solitary confinement in prison systems is that of the case of the Angola Three. For these prisoners, the time spent in solitary confinement ranged from 29 years to, in the case of Albert Woodfox, an in-comprehendible 43 years. Initially placed in Lousianna’s Angola prison in 1971 for armed robbery, Woodfox was later convicted alongside fellow Black Panther member Herman Wallace for the 1972 murder of an Angola prison officer, despite no physical evidence and weak- later revealed to be bribed- witness accounts. The two were then placed in solitary confinement, where aside from the 3 opportunities a week to stretch their legs in the prison yard, they spent 24 hours a day caged in a parking-space-sized box. They remained in this existence until their respective releases in 2013 and 2016. Woodfox- who has now become known for serving the longest period in solitary confinement in US prison history – endured zero social contact from the age of 25 to his release at the age of 68. Woodfox’s story brings into light a galore of issues surrounding the US criminal justice system- overt racism, bribing of witnesses to frame political targets and excessive punishment, to name a few. 

However, beyond the issue of criminal guilt or innocence in these cases, what is most alarming is the prevailing existence of a justice system which permits solitary confinements stretching over decades. Or the fact that ‘justice’ and ‘43 years in solitary confinement’ can even exist under the same coincident umbrella in the eyes of those green lighting such sentences. Even if Woodfox had not been racially profiled, had not been framed of an additional crime he did not commit and sentenced with a scandalous lack of evidence, even if he had been as cold-blooded and as guilty a murderer as they come, the prospect of over half-a-lifetime confined in a concrete box feels as barbaric as murder itself. Yet dismally, we live in a reality where solitary confinement is a prison system epidemic much deeper and far-reaching than one tragic case study.  

From a philosophical perspective, Lisa Guenther, associate of Vanderblit University, argues that what makes solitary confinement so fundamentally cruel is its ability to strip away the very essence of what it means to be human: an ability to form meaningful connections. Despite drip feeding prisoners the physical necessities to survive, she argues that by withholding social contact we are depriving the incarcerated of a much deeper freedom than their ability to physically roam. Instead, it creates a reality which becomes increasingly unhinged in a purely isolated environment. As such, Guenther presents solitary confinement as a violation of basic human rights for the innocent and guilty alike. 

Used for disciplinary or administrative purposes, solitary confinement can be an indefinite sentence for suspected gang members or disruptive prisoners. This is despite the stark lack of evidence suggesting it has any positive effect on controlling gang issues or minimizing aggressive behaviour within prisons. Accordingly, California’s disproportionately aggressive stance on isolating prisoners who are suspected gang members, is also matched with its continued top ranking in serious within-prison gang problems. This highlights the lack of economic justification for a costly policy which is ineffective as it is cruel. 

Furthermore, the independent advocacy project Solitary Watch reported solitary confinement as an ‘extravagantly expensive’ practise, found to be ineffective in reducing violence and even drives up chances of reoffending. Crudely, and putting the moral arguments to one side, solitary confinement is a policy mechanism which makes no economic sense. With the stark lack of evidence for its effectiveness in improving prisoner safety, wellbeing or post-prison outcomes entirely outweighed by the overwhelming body of evidence on the harm it instead inflicts. 

Instead of providing any social or economic benefits, the effects of prolonged social isolation are devastating across a number of facets. Being deprived of social connection has been reported to be as physically ruinous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. In stimulating an overwhelming innate stress response, solitary confinement spikes cortisol levels, blood pressure and levels of inflammation to such an extent that it increases the risk of premature death by over 25%. 

This figure only increases when taking into consideration the associated increased risk of suicide. Half of successful suicides in US prisons occur in solitary cells, despite the fact these people make up only 3% of the entire prison population. This points to a blatant neglect in the duty of care for those in solitary confinement. And on a deeper level, the harrowing nature of the segregated conditions which drives people to such feelings of hopelessness and desperation. 

The heart-breaking story of 22-year-old Kalief Brown is just one example bringing these statistics to life. Brown endured 2 years in solitary confinement for fighting with inmates while in the notoriously brutal Rikers Island Prison, before ever actually being convicted of a crime. During this time he was kept alone in his cell for 23 hours a day, starved and beaten multiple times, and deprived of any social contact for the entirety of these 2 years. Brown entered prison a later proven innocent 16-year-old boy- alleged of stealing a backpack, and left as a 20-year-old so traumatised and distressed that after multiple suicide attempts in prison he eventually took his own life in 2015, just two years after his release. The later ban on under 17’s being kept in solitary confinement in New York was too late for Kalief Brown, and it remains a localised step, inadequate to deal with solitary confinement as a much wider issue in prisons across the world. Brown’s death is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of these stories.

Within the UK, a report carried out by the Chief Inspector of prisons in England in 2020 exposed the grim treatment of some of the country’s most vulnerable children in Young Offenders Institutions. The report found a shocking one-in-ten young offenders had spent time in solitary confinement. Of which in some extreme cases, young offenders had spent a combined total of over a year’s worth of days in isolation and in other cases reported only leaving their cell for a mere 15 minutes a day during these solitary confinement periods. Concerningly, the report further revealed that out of the 350 authorisation requests to hold children in solitary confinement for more than 21 days between 2018-2019, none were rejected. This report ultimately exposes a worrying reliance on confinement where there exists a desperate need for compassion. And on a deeper level, it points to the need for a drastic re-shift in how Young Offender Institutions perceive, treat and nurture their young people. By moving away from punishment and towards support mechanisms, we would take a crucial first step in the rehabilitation of those who have the potential to benefit from it the most. 

For Albert Woodfox, for Kalief Brown and for the countless nameless others who have never made headlines and continue to be prisoners above people in the eyes of the law, the effects of prolonged solitary confinement have devastating consequences. From a neuroscientific perspective, studies have widely shown that sustained social isolation generates chronic stress which causes irreversible damage to the human brain. Neuroscientist Richard Smeyne has found that neurons in sensory and motor regions of the brain shrink as much as 20% from just one month of social isolation. Similarly, chronic stress has been found to degrade the hippocampus– triggering memory loss, declines in cognitive abilities and depression, as well as having long term effects on memory and emotion regulation. Even the sensory deprivation and lack of natural light in isolation cells has been shown to disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythms and lead to increased risk of psychosis.

 What’s more, the severe isolation of solitary confinement has been found to play a causal role in increasing anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Any period of isolation beyond 15 days has been found to cause permanent mental health damage, particularly among already vulnerable groups typical of a prison population. Such findings ultimately point to the fact that as a social animal, human beings are simply not biologically designed for prolonged isolation. An argument which the neuroscience findings unequivocally support. 

As such, solitary confinement has been outlined by the UN as constituting torture if carried out for a period longer than 15 days. A groundbreaking declaration which recognises that in depriving prisoners of the fundamental human need to interact with others, prison systems are failing in their provision of basic human rights. And on a deeper level, failing to adequately treat prisoners as human beings. 

As it stands, solitary confinement allows for dehumanising and subjugation at the discretion of individual officers, with no real benefits existing to compensate for the physical and mental damage caused. Instead, confinement engineers a soul-crushing reality in systems operating under the pretence of rehabilitation. Whereby instead of preparing prisoners for positive reentry into society, individual prisons are actively engaging in practices which institutionalise and worsen their prisoner’s mental state before spitting them back out into the ‘real world’. As such, solitary confinement represents an alarming mismatch of goals between those working in prisons, and the system as a whole. Whereby the officers pulling the strings are not doing so in tune with the wellbeing of prisoners, or the safety of society on a whole.  

With such extensive findings on the catastrophic damage of prolonged isolation, it should be outlawed as a practise, particularly among the young or mentally unstable. But ultimately, guilty or innocent, ‘deserving’ or not, the use of extended solitary confinement is a human rights abuse. One which has sadly come to characterise our broken prison systems, which have lost touch with their fundamental rehabilitative goals. If we wish to preserve the value of a second-chance, we cannot continue to let those most in need rot in the shadows. Instead, prisons must prepare their prisoners for the future, and to effectively do so, must abolish the use of solitary confinement.

“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.”

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