Sunday, October 28, 2007

Solitary Confinement

Some believed that to be permanently isolated from human contact is to be sentenced to the punishment of living death (Gomez, 2006). Although maybe extreme, this description is not far from the lives of many inmates housed in solitary confinement all over the world, such as those in the Marion State Penitentiary, Illinios. With little or no contact with other humans, the prisoners are forced to live days, weeks, months and even up to 20 years without companionship or external stimuli in their environment. As humans are social creatures (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008), this lack of stimuli often has negative psychological consequences (Louw & O’Brien, 2007) including suicide, depression, chronophobia and Ganser syndrome. These and other negative psychological effects are the result of lack of human companionship and external stimuli. Humans are inquisitively social creatures that would barely survive in social isolation (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Prisons have adopted solitary confinement as a means to remove socially undesirable behaviour from the general population, but the detrimental psychological effects it can cause are also a social cause for concern.

Solitary confinement is a controversial form of imprisonment where an inmate is denied contact with other prisoners and has very limited contact with members of prison staff. Inmates are often confined to their cells for 23 hours a day with only one hour to exercise, and even this is done in a small, enclosed area also in solitary. While it is usually stated as a measure of societal protection for the inmate it is also seen as a form of torture in which sensory deprivation can occur. It was later discovered that no form of torture was worse because it resulted in many adverse psychological effects such as delusions, depression, panic and anxiety, dissatisfaction with life and in some instances, psychosis (Frinter, 2005).

Prison authorities, predominantly the Marion State Prison in Illinois, USA believed that by implementing physical and psychological torture such as in solitary confinement, they could control dissent in their prisoners (Gomez, 2006). Opponents of solitary confinement claim that it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment because of the lack of human contact and sensory deprivation which has a severe negative impact on a prisoner's mental state that may lead to certain mental illnesses such as depression or an existential crisis. Depression, delusions, panic, dissatisfaction with life and madness are all psychological side effects of solitary confinement and all of these are encompassed in the definition of chronophobia which is the duration or immensity of time, a state which is also referred to as prison neurosis. It is a fear of time and not being able to contain its proliferation (Meyer 2006). There are many psychological effects such as chronophobia solitary confinement can result in including Ganser syndrome.

Ganser syndrome is a rare dissociate disorder regarded defined as having vorbeiredeen or ‘approximate answers’, somatic conversion symptoms, clouding of consciousness and hallucinations (Anderson, Sestoft & Lillebaek, 2001). A sufferer may answer wrongly to relatively easy questions that have a right or wrong answer. Previously seen as a fictitious disorder it is more common among prison inmates who have been housed in solitary confinement and may be caused by situations in which the individual experiences extreme stress.
A study conducted by Gendreau, Freedman, Wilde and Scott (1972) found that just one week of solitary confinement had significant slowing in their EEG frequency after this sensory deprivation.

Sensory deprivation is the state of being cut off from almost all sensory stimulation from the external environment. It is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons why social isolation and sensory deprivation in solitary confinement situations causes mental and emotional breakdown in prisoners. However, in addition to the stimuli and interactions they are denied, how people's minds are affected by others controlling every aspect of their lives must be considered. From where they are and how long they will be there to how much food they get and when, also light and noise levels, restricted and controlled personal possessions, clean cloths and bedding and whether or not they are allowed fresh air is managed externally. They are not able to make even the simplest personal decision such as taking a short walk or making a phone call. Every aspect of their lives is controlled and this in itself can have detrimental effects on their mental health. As humans are social creatures, with no one to affirm or deny the validity of their thoughts and feelings, one inmate stated living in solitary confinement resulted in his “feelings becoming indistinct, emotions unpredictable. The monotony makes thought hard to separate and capsulate” (Gomez, 2006). Extended deprivation in itself can lead to depression, anxiety and antisocial behaviour, but when paired with the other elements of solitary confinement its effects on an individuals mental health can be devastating.

As well as being social, human beings are also naturally curious. Drastically reducing the amount of ‘normal’ social interaction as well as of reasonable mental stimulus, exposure to the natural world and of almost everything that makes life human and bearable, is emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. This is because it denies the ability to ask questions and seek reasons and information to form explanations that allow us to understand ourselves as well as our world and our place and purpose in the world. It is logical that the prisoners feel less stable and secure overall when the things that their brain and body rely on to connect to and understand their surroundings are taken away from them (Frinter, 2005).
On the rare occasions that the inmate housed in solitary confinement are held for protective reasons or they are released from prison they must then face the daunting task of re-entering society. After years of little to no personal choice within the prison environment they may well lose the ability to think for themselves and make their own decisions and choices freely (Tosh, 1982). This not only impacts the individual but also the wider community.

Empirical research on solitary confinement has consistently and unequivocally documented the harmful consequences of living in a socially isolated environment. Evidence of negative psychological effects of solitary confinement comes from personal accounts, descriptive studies and systematic research.
Previously healthy prisoners held in isolation have developed clinical symptoms usually associated with psychosis or severe affective disorders including Chronophobia and Ganser syndrome as well as all types of psychiatric morbidity, many have committed suicide. Some individuals can tolerate isolation better than others, and the most extreme symptoms may often be associated with the most extreme environmental conditions, there is by no means a consistent effect across individuals.
The never ending supervision and segregation, the harsh solitude and minimalist lifestyle are deliberately designed to not only incapacitate, but psychologically curb any prisoner’s personality traits that have been deemed by society as undesirable or dangerous.
In combination with political use, behaviour modification techniques such as solitary confinement to silence dissent, extended civil death towards the horizon on punishment that categorised isolation as and inhuman treatment as preventative detention, in turn not only justifying the violation of basic human rights, but simultaneously anaesthetising the public to the realities of incarceration.


Anderson, H.C., Sestoft, D., & Lillebaek, T. (2001) Ganser syndrome after solitary confinement in prison: A short review and a case report. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. 55(3), 199-201.

Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B.J. (2008). Social psychology and human nature 1st ed.) Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Frinter, C. (2005) Lonely madness: The effects of solitary confinement and social isolation on mental and emotional health. Neurobiology and Behaviour. Accessed on 27th October 2007.

Gendreau, P., Freedman, N.L.,Wilde, G.J., & Scott, G.D. (1972) Changes in EEG alpha frequency and evoked response latency during solitary confinement. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 79(1). 54-59.

Gomez, A. E., (2006) Resisting living death at marion federal penitentiary, 1972. Radical History Reviews. 96. 58-86.
Louw, H., & O’Brien, C. (2007) The psychological effects on social confinement: An early instance of psychology in south african courts. South African Journal of Psychology. 37(1).

Meyer, J. (2006) Chronophobia: On time in the art of the 1960’s. Art Bulletin. 88(4). 781-783.

Tosh, J. (1982). The pains of imprisonment. California: Sage Publications. Accessed 28/10/07 Accessed 26/10/07


Ink said...

This article is very helpful. I am a freshman in university writing an essay on how I like group-work more than working by myself. I decided tp put in some psychology problems related to isolation and your article helped me alot. I have learned alot and I will definitely credit you.

Anonymous said...

Millions of people around the world suffer from depression and most of them don't even realize that they are experiencing depression. If you are constantly sad, dull and just streching life then get yourself checked for depression.

Clifford J Barrar said...

Will you please comment on the use of seclusion in psychiatric hospitals? If a Psychiatrist orders a patient into seclusion with an accompanying order that says Patient may not talk to staff and staff may not talk to the patient and that patient is kept there for several days, is that not Solitary Confinement?

Steven said...

You have a nice blog.Author and licensed counselor, David P. Diana, just released a fascinating eBook called “Change Therapy”. Once you dive into this collection of articles you’ll never look at the mental health profession the same way again.

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cath said...

love this post.
i wanna cite it for an essay i'm doing, but i'm not quite sure how to reference it without an author haha
would i be able to get the name of the genius behind this post? :)