Updated: Jun 21, 2021
[TW/CW: The following article describes disturbing living conditions and life experiences that one may potentially find troubling. This article describes a criminal method of punishment in prisons: solitary confinement. It describes the physical conditions of solitary confinement, its mental and medical implications, and the reasons for which one can be assigned to it. It also describes the lived experiences of some individuals who have undergone this. Please feel free to reach out to us for a short conversation if you need to discuss something you find concerning.]
Source: Amnesty International
Living in a pandemic with a highly contagious virus entails being prepared to live in isolation. The isolation may be precautionary or necessary, but more often than not, the isolation is practised in the confines of one’s own home. Forced isolation in any form is not easy, and quarantine is no exception to this rule. However, it makes one imagine what it must be like to live solitarily in the worst possible conditions. How bad can the worst get? Read on to learn about the horror and squalor of life lived solitarily, in prisons.
Some prison cells are designed to house only one inmate, and these form the bedrock of the practice of solitary confinement. 8 by 10 feet size, give or take, these cells are generally smaller than a horse’s stable. Although the time frame ranges, being subjected to solitary confinement can mean spending anywhere between 22 to 24 hours locked in one’s cell, with spare hours allotted for exercise and showering purposes. Prisoners are generally locked in solitary if they have violated specific prison rules, or if they need protection from fellow inmates on account of their criminal profile etc. In the United States, an individual accused of a crime can be subjected to solitary confinement in a prison even before they have had a fair trial and been convicted by court. Historically, this method of imprisonment was put into practice as a way for prisoners to reflect on what they have done wrong, in solitude. To be penitent, so to speak, which explains the origin of the word “penitentiary” as another word for prison. Experts suggest that being put in solitary for a few days or weeks is effective, as it deters people from committing offences that landed them there. However, extending this period to months or years is inhumane. And yet, the record for the longest time spent in solitary is 45 years by a man in the US! (Clark & Bryant, 2017).
The environment of these cells is hardly pleasant. There is terrible ventilation; prisoners are either baking or shivering because they have no protection against the weather. A stench of faeces and urine hangs in the air due to the extremely poor levels of sanitation. As described by somebody who spent time in solitary confinement, the soundscape alternates between deathly quiet and a constant banging, cursing, and screaming by other prisoners in their cells (Sorensen & Hill, 2020).
One researcher describes the living environment as social death, referring to the complete lack of social experiences when placed in solitary (Sorensen & Hill, 2020). The only kind of human interaction occurs when an officer/guard slides a plate of food into the cell. This too, is not done kindly. Officers use food to taunt prisoners, by withholding a portion of it or spitting into it. This is done to tempt the inmate into showing aggression towards them, which becomes ground to extend their torture in solitary. One ex-inmate recalls a time when a guard watched her fold a small piece of paper and charged her for destroying state property and lengthened the time she spent in solitary by another month (Sorensen & Hill, 2020).
Medically, being confined in solitary wreaks havoc on one’s body. Muscular atrophy, or the deterioration of muscle occurs due to the lack of movement and exercise. Given that there is very poor illumination, eyesight loss takes place. For those already suffering from chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes, access to care is severely restricted. Nobody is handing out medicine or allowing doctors visits.
There have been very few studies conducted on the mental health impact of solitary confinement because there is such little available access to these inmates. In the studies that have been done, one has shown that those confined in solitary end up suffering from a spectrum of conditions including depression, anxiety, hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, self mutilation, suicidal ideation, and hypersensitivity to sound and light (Clark & Bryant, 2017). Their circadian rhythm is affected because they are kept in the dark through the day and can’t differentiate well between day and night. They don’t end up getting good quality sleep; they spend their day drifting in and out of sleep in bed, as a result of which they can't sleep well during the night. Their thinking, concentration, and memory suffer detriments, and they become angry and violent. Most prisons don’t allow for any stimulation and entertainment. Even in those prisons where reading is permitted, inmates cannot occupy themselves with it. Since their memory is compromised, they can’t retain what they are reading, making it a futile exercise. In a study conducted between 1999 and 2004 in California, US, it was found that 50% of inmates who died by suicide were those who were in isolation (Clark & Bryant, 2017).
The effects of solitary confinement extend well beyond when the inmate has been released from solitary. The impact on their mental health is permanent and irreversible. They become terrified and distrustful of those around them. Some inmates would ask to be let back into solitary, as it is the only way they find that they can deal with the world around them. One prisoner, after having spent 2 decades in solitary, was released from prison and began to live with his mother. He would sit for hours on end in a cupboard in his basement following his return; it became the only place he would feel comfortable (Sorensen & Hill, 2020). Ironically, he had to recreate the torture of solitary confinement to manage his suffering from it. Another inmate, after being released from prison, suffered a panic attack when the doors closed in an elevator as it triggered memories of being locked up in solitary (Sorensen & Hill, 2020).
These stories are not easy to stomach. This form of punishment is inarguably cruel. What feelings do these stories invoke in you?
Content Writer, Limelighting Life Collective
Clark, J., & Bryant, C. (Hosts). (2017, March 21st). Solitary Confinement: Cruel and Unusual
[Audio podcast episode]. In Stuff you should know. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/in/podcast/stuff-you-should-know/id278981407#episodeGuid=https%3A%2F%2Fpodcasts.howstuffworks.com%2Fhsw%2Fpodcasts%2Fsysk%2F2017-03-21-sysk-solitary-confinement-final.mp3
Sorensen, D., & Hill, D. (Hosts). (2020, June 24th). Solitary Confinement and Criminal Justice Reform [Audio podcast episode]. In Psychologists off the clock. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/in/podcast/psychologists-off-the-clock/id1176171178?i=1000479530321