The Effects of Solitary Confinement

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Here in America, around 80,000 individuals are held in solitary confinement, according to the latest national census. This practice has developed with apparently little idea to how seclusion influences a man's mind. While reading the two articles, Before the Law by Jennifer Gonnerman and The man who was caged in a zoo by Pamela Newkirk, I noticed one particular aspect they shared in common. While these two stories or rather two gentlemen lived in different times and experienced life in a different setting, one thing that I could not help but notice was that they were all put in solitary confinement by a system that did not care (Jennifer Gonnerman 2014). Most importantly, I noticed the effect that such conferment had on their life and how they ended up taking their own lives.  While Ota Benga was taken away from home, far in Africa and displayed in a zoo like an animal (Newkirk 2017), Kalief Browder was sent to one of the worst prisons in America for a crime that he did not commit. The result of this for both was similar, wasted years in confinement, wasted childhood, robbed of innocence and eventually, loss of self from mental harm. One question that came into my mind while reading these two stories was whether solitary confinement is a cruel and unusual punishment? And after reading the two articles, I came up with an answer that indeed solitary conferment is a cruel and unusual punishment.

While it happened many years ago to Ota Benga, tens of thousands of individuals across the country much like Kalief Browder are held in near-total isolation for between 22 and 24 hours a day. While Benga might not have been in a real prison setting, his confinement was much like that of a prison setting, a 5ft tall cage (Newkirk 2017). Prison cells are usually about a parking space size, with a concrete bed, combination a toilet and sink, and an unmovable stool. There is a small space in the door just enough for food to be slipped through by a guard. Inmates in isolation areas often denied contact visits and phone calls. In isolation, recreation included being taken in shackles and handcuffs, to different solitary cell for an hour and brought back to their cell.

From the time solitary confinement emerged, it has been utilized as an apparatus of suppression. While it is defended by correction authorities as essential to protect both guards and convicts from violent ones, it is regularly used on people, especially black inmates just like Browder (Jennifer Gonnerman 2014). Also, jailhouse doctors and lawyers, who tend to the need of prisoners are unreasonably put in isolation. Since solitary confinement generally happens at the pleasure of prison administrators, the majority of prisoners spend years away from real social interaction. From California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, for instance, at least 500 of convicts at Pelican Bay State Prison have spent over ten years in solitude.

You may think that all prisoners taken to solitary confinement are the “worst of the worst,” murderers and rapists who would carry on with their violent courses even at a correctional facility. However, many are put in isolation for nonviolent offences, and many of them are not even criminals, still awaiting trial. Just like Benga, an innocent man was placed in solitary confinement with a chimpanzee, Browder spent many years in prison, most of which was spent on solitary confinement even though there was no probable reason to put him through such experience. Others are placed in these cells "for their very own security"since they are gay or transgendered or have been assaulted by other prisoners.

                             Effects of solitary confinement

For whatever reasons one is put in isolation, such outrageous sensory deprivation and isolation can result to a serious and lasting toll on the emotional and psychological well-being. Research has shown that detainees under solitary confinement easily become paranoid, hypersensitive to sounds and sights and highly predisposed to to hallucinations and violence. These studies have reported many instances of people without earlier history of psychological disorders who later develop paranoid psychosis following longer solitary confinement. Detrimental as the results may be for adult inmates, they can be far more severe for teenagers, whose minds are still in their last phases of developments, and also the psychologically ill, who are struggling to keep a firm hold on reality. It is worth noting that half of all suicides attempts in prisons happen in solitary confinement cells.

When prison administrators are talking about solitary confinement, they portray it as the jail inside a jail, and for good purpose. During the twentieth century, an ordinary stay in solitary meant only a couple of days or a few weeks in serious cases. These days, it is common for prisoners to be held in isolation for years. Advocates of solitary confinement argue that it helps in keeping the facilities safer, yet according to the medicinal research, isolation can also take a substantial mental toll. The physical impacts may include auditory and visual hallucination, heart palpitations, chronic lethargy, headaches, insomnia, and hypersensitivity to touch and noise. Even more damaging are the mental effects of isolation as it affected Benga and Browder. They include PTSD, higher risk of suicide, chronic depression, a feeling of emotional emptiness, distortions of perception and time, extreme nervousness and anxiety, uncontrollable feelings of fear and rage, violent fantasies, withdrawal and obsessive ruminations. Both Benga and Browder eventually succumbed to these issues and finally committed suicide.

In essence, Stuart Grassian and Nancy Friedman interviewed many inmates in solitary cells. In one incident, they discovered that around 33% of prisoners in solitary confinement were "acutely suicidal or actively psychotic” (Grassian and Friedman 50) He has since argued that such solitary confinement can cause a particular mental disorder, characterized by difficulties with memory, thinking and concentration; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; reduced impulse control; overt paranoia; panic attacks; and hallucinations. Many prisoners also lose their capacity to stay alert, while others develop devastating fixations.

From the two articles, one thing that comes clear is that after years of solitude, at the very least, it can make people significantly more of a risk to themselves. For instance, prisoners in isolation have been shown to involve in self-mutilation as the case with Browder who attempted to cut his wrist. In a study carried out on California's prisons, researchers discovered that between 1999 and 2004, inmates place in isolation represented about 50% of all suicide. Also, a study performed on federal prisons in 1995 showed that 63% of suicides happened among prisoners placed in solitary confinement, for example, psychiatric seclusion cells (Hart 846).

Some scholars claim that people begin to adapt when placed in solitary confinement; however this is not true.  It is not easy. A research led by Craig Haney at California's Pelican Bay State Prison indicated that convicts have problems controlling their behavior, or even organizing their own lives (Haney 501). He credited this to a near complete lack of control detainees have over everyday life. He discovered that regularly detainees start to lose the capacity to begin any behavior, or their lives around any purpose and activity. The results are chronic despair, depression, lethargy and apathy. In some severe cases, detainees may stop behaving (Haney 505).

                                                What is being done?

In the U.S. and across the world, there is a rising movement advocating the abolition of solitary confinement. In America alone, movements led by prisoners have attracted the attention of the media and have incited public criticism of the practice of solitary confinement in both federal and state prisons. Hunger strikes organized by inmates have been especially effective in attracting attention regarding the cruel and unusual practice ("Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)"). Legislation and litigation have forced many states to limit the application of isolation in corrections facilities and prisons as leaders themselves are beginning to rethink the use of long-term solitary confinements.

The movement is not only local, international human rights bodies and experts have also denounced extended or indefinite isolation, proposing that it should be abolished and pointing out that it is an abuse of human rights that amount to torture ("Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)"). For instance, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture concluded in 2011 that even just 15 days in solitude amounts to torture or cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment and that longer time spent in a solitary cell may cause permanent harmful mental impacts.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in May 2012, became a party to a pro se case, originally filed by leaders who were challenging California's practice of indefinite solitary confinement in the notorious Pelican Bay jail. A federal class action named Ashker, et al. v. Senator, et al. challenged denial of due process and extended solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, in light of rights protected by the 8th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution ("Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)"). It challenged the unconstitutional, inhuman conditions under which many detainees lived. The plaintiffs, in this case, contended that ten years or more of isolation is not good for anyone, irrespective of his or her psychological health status and detainees must be given a meaningful notice of the purpose of their solitary confinement, and successive reviews of that status.

Consequently, in 2015, The Center for Constitutional Rights reported that they had settled on a decision to end indefinite solitary confinement in California, and drastically reducing the number of individuals placed in isolation cells. In October 2015, CCR started a two-year observing period to guarantee broad, major reforms ("Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)"). These included but limited to ending the status-based practice of solitary confinement; ending indeterminate SHU sentences; a quick review of all gang-validated SHU inmates and the resulting release of such detainees to the general population; and establishing formal roles for detainees themselves in reviewing compliance with the settlement agreement.

The agreement necessitates that all detainees who earlier put in SHU based on their supposed gang association be discharged to the general population if they had not committed any offence related to SHU within the past two years. If they had committed such an offence, they enter a two year “step down program.” This is where they get discharged to the general population on condition that they do not engage in any gang-related offences, and participate in the rehabilitative programming ("Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)").

Lastly, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case against solitary confinement is founded on a growing pledge to challenge and abolish solitary confinement in correction facilities. In Wilkinson v. Austin, the supreme court of the United States ruled in favour of CCR that prison authorities should not confine convicts in indefinite solitary confinement in a maximum security facility without first giving them the chance to challenge this placement ("Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)"). The CCR has taken part efforts besides hunger-striking inmates, and also in advocacy against isolation in correctional facilities before the U.N and Members of Congress.


From the two articles, it is clear that there are not many things as bad as being locked up, alone, day and night, with no contact with the outside world. That is the reason why isolation has frequently been utilized as a definitive punishment, an additional measure beyond detainment. Regardless of its widespread application, there is nothing commonsensical or natural about locking people in cages whether they are in danger, mentally ill, or acting out. In the same way, slavery is shown by the experiences of Benga, solitary confinement is a standardized and inhumane practice, on which one day we will think back and ask why and how it was tolerated for such a long time. From the story of Browder portraying a life destroyed, incarceration and solitary confinement is not just a cruel practice, but also a counterproductive one. As a nation, we should reclaim the wisdom we once held and drastically limit this practice.

Works Cited

"Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)."Solitary Watch, 29 Oct. 2018,

Grassian, Stuart, and Nancy Friedman. "Effects of sensory deprivation in psychiatric seclusion and solitary confinement."International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol. 8, no. 1, 1986, pp. 49-65.

Haney, Craig. "Psychology and the limits to prison pain: Confronting the coming crisis in Eighth Amendment law."Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, vol. 3, no. 4, 1997, pp. 499-588.

Hart, Darryl A. "The Statutory Right of Redemption in California."California Law Review, vol. 52, no. 4, 1964, p. 846.

Jennifer Gonnerman. "Before the Law."The New Yorker, 6 Oct. 2014,

Newkirk, Pamela. "The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo | Pamela Newkirk."The Guardian, 29 Nov. 2017,

November 24, 2023

Crime Law

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Prison Punishment

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