Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

Should solitary confinement be considered a form of torture?

Illustration for article titled Should solitary confinement be considered a form of torture?

To virtually no one's surprise, scientists are increasingly finding that solitary confinement induces a host of psychological and physiological problems in prisoners. The time has come, say a growing number of concerned citizens, to call it for what it really is: Torture.


Top image: Steve McQueen in Papillion (1973)

A pair of recent articles have addressed this issue.

First up is an episode and accompanying article by the outstanding design podcast, 99% Invisible, called "An Architect's Code." The piece describes the work of the group Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) who have taken the stance that there are certain types of buildings and structures that should not be built — designs that violate standards of human rights.

Illustration for article titled Should solitary confinement be considered a form of torture?

Image: Rendering of Pelican Bay SHU. Each "pod" contains six cells, a shower, and an exercise yard. Credit: Raphael Sperry.

One such violation is the design of solitary confinement cells in prisons. As Roman Mars points out in his article:

Life inside of the SHU at Pelican Bay means 22 to 23 hours a day inside of 7.5 by 12 foot room. It’s not a space that’s designed to keep you comfortable. But it’s not just these architectural features, that concern humanitarian activists and psychiatrists. It’s the amount of time many prisoners spend in that cells, alone, without any meaningful activity. Some psychiatrists, such as Terry Kupers, say there is a whole litany of effects that a SHU can have on a person: massive anxiety, paranoia, depression, concentration and memory problems, and loss of ability to control one’s anger (which can get a prisoner in trouble and lengthen the SHU sentence). In California, SHU inmates are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than other prisoners incarcerated elsewhere in the state. There are even reports of eye damage due to the restriction on distance viewing. Terry Kupers says that a SHU "destroys people as human beings."


I highly, highly recommend that you listen to the entire episode.

The second article comes from Wired's Brandon Keim who writes about "The horrible psychology of solitary confinement." He describes the largest prison protest in California's history in which nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on a hunger strike to protest the state's use of solitary confinement. Some prisoners are held for years or decades with almost no social contact and a minimal amount of sensory stimuli.


Keim writes:

Scientific studies of solitary confinement and its damages have actually come in waves, first emerging in the mid-19th century, when the practice fell from widespread favour in the United States and Europe. More study came in the 1950s, as a response to reports of prisoner isolation and brainwashing during the Korean War. The renewed popularity of solitary confinement in the United States, which dates to the prison overcrowding and rehabilitation program cuts of the 1980s, spurred the most recent research.

Consistent patterns emerge, centering around the aforementioned extreme anxiety, anger, hallucinations, mood swings and flatness, and loss of impulse control. In the absence of stimuli, prisoners may also become hypersensitive to any stimuli at all. Often they obsess uncontrollably, as if their minds didn't belong to them, over tiny details or personal grievances. Panic attacks are routine, as is depression and loss of memory and cognitive function...

...When prisoners leave solitary confinement and re-enter society — something that often happens with no transition period — their symptoms might abate, but they're unable to adjust. "I've called this the decimation of life skills," said Kupers. "It destroys one's capacity to relate socially, to work, to play, to hold a job or enjoy life."


According to Kupers, prisoners in isolation account for just 5% of the total prison population — but nearly half of its suicides.

Be sure to read the entire article.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Ravenous Sophovore

Here's another interesting article about it. I don't think that a certain subset of Americans want to hear that you can reduce prison violence and recidivism by working to rehabilitate prisoners and treat them humanely rather than punish them to the point it becomes vindictiveness rather than justice. There's a disturbing number of people who are a-okay with psychological and physical torture as long as the recipient "deserves it".

This is probably my favorite part of that article:

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focused on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.