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Solitary Confinement: Torture, Pure and Simple

Placing prisoners in solitary is tantamount to torture and it needs to stop.

By Gali Katznelson and J. Wesley Boyd

Let’s call it for what it is: Placing prisoners in solitary confinement is tantamount to torture and it needs to stop.

The practice of placing incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement dates back to the 1820s in America when it was thought that isolating individuals in prison would help with their rehabilitation. Yet, over the past two centuries, it has become clear that locking people away for 22 to 24 hours a day is anything but rehabilitative. Solitary confinement is so egregious a punishment that in 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment condemned its use, except in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, and banned the practice completely for people with mental illnesses and for juveniles.

Despite its barbarity, the United States continues to place thousands of people, including individuals with mental illnesses and children, in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Thirty years ago, Dr. Stuart Grassian, who recently spoke at Harvard Medical School’s “Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons” conference, evaluated 14 individuals placed in solitary confinement and found the same symptoms in many of them: hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, and derealisation experiences; affective disturbances, such as anxiety and panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, memory and concentration; the emergence of fantasies such as of revenge and torture of the guards; paranoia; problems with impulse control; and a rapid decrease in symptoms immediately following release from isolation. Taken together, Dr. Grassian proposed that these symptoms amount to a pathopsychological syndrome.

Since his initial work, ample medical literature has corroborated these findings. Social psychologist Dr. Craig Haney interviewed people in Pelican Bay State prison and told the New York Times that 63 percent of men kept in solitary confinement for 10 to 28 years said they consistently felt on the verge of an “impending breakdown,” compared to 4 percent of individuals in maximum-security prisons. He reported that 73 percent of people in solitary confinement felt chronically depressed, compared to 48 percent of those in maximum-security settings.

The psychological effects of isolation last long after individuals are removed from isolation. Indeed, years after their release, many who experienced solitary confinement in Pelican Bay had difficulty integrating into society, felt emotionally numb, experienced anxiety and depression, and preferred to remain in confined spaces.

Solitary confinement often exacerbates existing psychiatric conditions and not infrequently leads to suicide. In Texas, for example, suicides rates for those in solitary confinement are five times higher than that of the general prison community. Given that the U.S. has 10 times as many people with mental illnesses in jails than in state hospitals, the use of isolation for people with mental illnesses is beyond troubling.

Mental health issues are also widely prevalent in youth within correctional facilities, and placing youth in solitary, often as a form of punishment or simply because prisons are understaffed to engage with these children, is psychologically damaging and outright cruel. Dr. Louis J. Kraus, a child, adolescent, and forensic psychiatrist, also spoke at the Harvard conference, and explained that locking children up in isolation worsens their mood symptoms, worsens trauma-based pathology, increases anxiety symptoms, compromises these children’s trust, and increases the risk of suicide.

The upshot is that continuing to place these individuals in solitary confinement is both inhumane and unethical. Multiple organizations agree, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, and the United Nations. Nonetheless, thousands of children continue to be placed in solitary confinement across the U.S.

The verdict is clear: Solitary confinement causes such severe psychological damage that it is tantamount to torture. Prison systems in other countries such Germany and the Netherlands have found ways to function effectively while greatly restricting its use. We can too. The United States needs to be more humane to the more than two million of its people that are in the U.S. corrective system, and the first step toward doing so is straightforward: stop engaging in torture via solitary confinement.

Gali Katznelson is a Master of Bioethics candidate at Harvard Medical School and a fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

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