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15 Chilling Facts About Solitary Confinement

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Solitary confinement truly is the stuff of nightmares. Alone in a small space with just your thoughts – things are bound to become disturbing.

Solitary confinement can apply to various settings such as kidnapping or war scenarios but today we’re looking at solitary confinement in the penal system. It’s primarily used either to protect at-risk prisoners (such as child abusers and informants) from other prisoners or to punish an inmate who has committed some form of infraction while serving out their sentence. It is also sometimes also used to isolate patients who have threatened to harm themselves or others.

While in solitary confinement prisoners are usually housed in small individual cells for most, if not all of the day and night. For between 22 and 24 hours a day, these prisoners have little human interaction apart from the guards and they have limited access to vocational activities, education, recreation, books, and personal possessions. Sometimes they remain confined like this for months, even years.

But what does this kind of isolation do to a person’s body and mind? And if it’s being used for punishment is it effective? These are the questions we’re looking at and be warned – the answers may disturb you. Here are 15 things you may not know about solitary confinement.

15. First Time In 1829 – Almost Everyone Showed Signs Of Mental Breakdown

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The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was the first prison to experiment with solitary confinement back in 1829. The results weren’t good at all. Charles Dickens – who was at the height of his literary fame at the time – visited the prison to observe the inmates and later wrote, “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body”.

Almost every inmate that was confined to their cell demonstrated signs of mental breakdown and there was a sudden spike in the number of suicides and attempted suicides. When some of the men had completed their sentences and were released back into the world they were completely unable to function. The effects that were observed were harsh enough to abandon the practice for over a hundred years until it was used again in Alcatraz prison in 1934.

14. The Hole

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Solitary confinement is known by a few different names in different parts of the world. It is sometimes referred to as “lockdown”, “HDM” (Housing Detention for Men), “AdSeg” (administrative segregation), the “SHU” an acronym for “Special Housing Unit”. In British English solitary is known as “the block”, “The Segregation Unit”, “the cooler”, or, more grimly, “the hole”.

In the past, the hole was aptly named because it was usually situated underground with no window or natural light and sometimes no light at all. This would intensify the feeling of despair for the prisoner due to the added sensory deprivation. The inmate could be left in these nightmarish conditions for weeks, even months. Is it any wonder that they would emerge as broken men after such an experience?

13. The Brain In Solitary – 1 In 3 Were Psychotic

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Without stimulation and social interaction, the brain starts a dangerous downward spiral. To find out just what happens to the brain in these types of conditions psychiatrist Stuart Grassian interviewed hundreds of prisoners to listen to their accounts of solitary confinement and the results were shocking but somehow also not that surprising.

He found that about 1 in 3 inmates in isolated housing were either actively psychotic or suicidal. His studies also concluded that these conditions could result in hypersensitivity, reasoning and concentration problems, paranoia, and hallucinations even in prisoners with no prior mental disorders. He also noted that some of the inmates struggled to remain alert while others developed strange obsessions. He described one patient saying, “One inmate I interviewed developed some obsession with his inability to feel like his bladder was fully empty. Literally, that man spent hours, hours, 24 hours a day it was on his mind, hours standing in front of the toilet trying to pee … He couldn’t do anything else except focus on that feeling.”

12. The Longest Solitary Confinement Term Was 44 Years

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Albert Woodfox, Robert King and Herman Wallace are three former prison inmates (known as the Angola Three) who were placed in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola Prison) in 1972 after they were found guilty of stabbing a 23-year-old prison guard to death. The three men had initially been sent to prison after they were convicted of armed robbery. Collectively they would eventually serve more than 110 years in solitary confinement.

Robert King was in solitary for 29 years before his conviction was overturned and he was released. Herman Wallace was released in 2013 after spending more than 41 years in prison. After his release Amnesty International campaigned for Woodfox’s release and his sentence was eventually overturned and he was released. Albert Woodfox survived the longest solitary confinement sentence on record – a staggering 44 years.

11. Isolation Causes Negative Changes To The Body

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There can be no denying that being confined to a cell no bigger than your average horse stable also has a detrimental effect on the body. The lack of social communication may even have an effect on the brain itself and not just the psyche. In 2014, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan Huda Akil theorized that social interaction may activate growth factors in the brain which help cells grow and repair. Without this interaction, the brain will slowly start to lose connections and this can have negative side effects.

The lack of sunlight, fresh air, and space to move around can also cause physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, headaches, light and sound sensitivity, muscle pain, digestion problems, dizziness, loss of appetite and weight loss.

10. Does It Even Work As A Punishment? Not Really…

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Some of you may be thinking “okay solitary confinement sure sounds terrible but we don’t put people into solitary confinement for being good citizens.” And that’s partly true. One of the main reasons that the practice is still in use, especially in the United States, is because it does reduce violence between inmates and also protects the correctional officers. Usually, segregation is used for “the worst of the worst” or for those who are at risk of violence like child abusers or police informants. These inmates couldn’t be housed in general population so the isolation is for their own protection.

But back to solitary confinement as a punishment – does it really work? Not really. One study in California found that general population inmates had a 47.6% recidivism rate while those who spent time in solitary had a 52.2% chance of reoffending. Not very promising is it?

9. Nonsense Syndrome

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Nonsense Syndrome is a rare dissociative disorder which often affects prisoners who are isolated in solitary confinement cells. The disorder is also known as Ganser Syndrome or prison psychosis. People suffering from this disorder often experience hallucinations, a loss of personal identity, decreased level of consciousness, fugue, and amnesia. It is characterized by nonsense answers to simple questions or doing things incorrectly.

It is believed that the condition is a reaction to extreme stress and that the patient/prisoner loses the ability to approximate and perform simple reasoning. In most cases, this is diagnosed as a dissociative disorder although in some cases it may be seen as malingering in an attempt to gain leniency from prison officials. The condition is difficult to truly diagnose due to high levels of dishonesty in these types of situations.

8. The 1951 Sensory Deprivation Experiments

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These days it would be tough to get approval to do human experiments to investigate what happens to the mind under extreme isolation conditions but back in 1951 Donald O. Hebb, a professor of psychology at Montreal’s McGill University did just that. He managed to secure a grant and paid a group of male researchers to stay in small sensory deprivation chambers for six weeks.

They wore goggles, earphones, and gloves to limit their senses even further in the dark cramped spaces and could only leave to go to the bathroom. The researchers planned to observe the subjects for six weeks but none of them lasted longer than a few days. Almost every one of them reported that they had lost the ability to think clearly about anything for any length of time and most experienced bizarre hallucinations.

7. The Real Cost Of Special Housing Units

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In the USA it’s estimated that anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are held in solitary cells at any given time. In the UK this number is around 500. These types are units cost more to build than average prisons and the cost of housing a prisoner in one of these units is approximately $75,000 a year, which of course the taxpayers need to fork out for. The average cost to house a prisoner in general population is about $31,000 a year which means it costs double to triple to keep a prisoner in isolation.

So we can already see that the negatives are strongly outweighing the positives. Solitary does keep prisons safer that’s for sure but at what cost? Not only is it a massive financial burden but it’s making prisoners more violent instead of the other way around.

6. The “Pit Of Despair” & Learned Helplessness

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The “Pit of Despair” experiments were carried out in the 1970s by an American comparative psychologist Harry Harlow. He designed a nightmarish device which was basically a tiny stainless steel box with a wire mesh floor and sloped edges. For the experiments, he would take baby monkeys and place them in this device to study the effects of maternal isolation. Most of the monkeys would try to climb out of the box for the first few days and then would give up, stop moving around and sit hunched over in a corner. Harlow wrote, “most subjects typically assume a hunched position in a corner of the bottom of the apparatus. One might presume at this point that they find their situation to be hopeless.”

Today Harlow’s experiments are considered unethical but they did help to raise awareness about the treatment of laboratory animals and the aid in the creation of today’s ethics regulations.

5. The Cold Reality Of Long-Term Effects

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The effects of solitary don’t end when a person is released or allowed back into general population environments. Many prisoners who endured long spells in segregation have reported that they continue to struggle with problems with their vision, mind-numbing depression and confusion even after years of freedom. It seems that the damage done may simply never go away or heal properly. Combine these long term effects with violent tendencies and a high chance of reoffending and you have a revolving door of problem inmates.

The question here is: does the punishment fit the crime? We’ll look at how effective solitary is as a punishment in a moment, but as bad as the effects are what else are we meant to do with violent people who have no regard for the safety of others?

4. How Do Prisoners Fill Their Time?

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Prisoners in isolated housing units have little to no control over any aspect of their lives. Their food is delivered at the same time every day through a slot in the door. If they have a shower in their cell it is usually connected to a timer meaning they can’t decide when to shower or for how long. If they are let out for exercise, they are closely monitored and they are not allowed to communicate with other prisoners or their loved ones.

Many prisoners do exercises in their cell in an attempt to stay active. Good behavior can mean access to books and writing and art materials which can help them pass the long lonely hours. A small number of prisons also allow the inmates to have radios and sometimes even television sets.

3. Even Minor Non-Violent Infractions Could Land You In Solitary

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Landing in administrative segregation can be due to serious offenses like assault but it is also used as punishment for seemingly minor rule infractions. For example, in the California prison system, having more than five dollars without authorization or being found with tattoo supplies could put you in segregation indefinitely. Other non-violent offenses that could land you in the special housing unit include swearing, not following orders, chewing tobacco and using too many postage stamps.

You can understand why dangerous violent prisoners may be placed in solitary to protect those around him. But when prison officials know the serious psychological effects that this type of punishment can have it’s difficult to comprehend why they would willingly use it for non-violent offenses. Especially when they know it can turn even calm, healthy prisoners into violently unstable individuals.

2. The Case Of Charles Bronson

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Charles Bronson (born Michael Gordon Peterson) is Britain’s most notorious prisoner. His story was made into the 2008 movie Bronson which saw Tom Hardy playing the leading role. To date, this colorful character has served more than 34 years in prison, many of those in solitary confinement due to his violent behavior. Bronson fancies himself an artist and fitness fanatic – he does more than 3000 push-ups as part of his daily routine.

Since his initial imprisonment at the age of 19 in 1974 for armed robbery, he has enjoyed only 131 days of freedom because of his repeated law violations. These include armed robbery, attacks on guards and prisoners, and hostage taking. During a jail siege in 2000, he held a teacher hostage for 2 days which earned him a life sentence.

1. A Death Before Dying?

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Some prisoners have described the experience of solitary confinement as “a death before dying”. So what is life really like when you are locked up for 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell that usually measures about 6ft x 9ft to 8ft x 10ft?

Firstly prisoners are allowed to take very few personal items into the cell with them. Some of the luckier ones may be allowed radios, art supplies, or books but most times this is not allowed. Food is served through a slot in the door meaning and visitation and telephone privileges are taken away. This means that the inmate is completely socially isolated.

Some have showers inside their cells while others may be escorted to have a shower. They may be allowed to exercise usually in caged off or fenced areas where they have no access to other prisoners. While in a special housing unit prisoners are not allowed to work or take part in any prison programs.

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