- Published: November 15, 2012
An article by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker entitled “Hellhole” is followed by the subtitle, “The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?” My instinctual reaction to this question was “yes,” and after reading Gawande’s article and a number of other sources about solitary confinement, I am absolutely certain that solitary confinement constitutes torture. It doesn’t take science or research to intuit that human beings are social creatures and to imagine how horrific it would be to spend extended periods of time, years even, prevented from having any contact with other humans. Because of just how torturous solitary confinement seems, I assumed that in a “civilized” country like ours it was reserved for only cases when it was absolutely necessary. As it turns out this is not the case at all. Solitary confinement is actually quite widespread in U.S. prisons, not as I expected, reserved for violent prisoners, but rather a punishment that is used for a wide variety of offenses at the discretion of the prison officials.
This is appalling on mere principal. Many former prisoners of war have described solitary confinement as the worst torture they had to endure, worse than any physical torture. It should seem wrong somehow to isolate people from other people on a purely social level. But it gets worse. The physical consequences of prolonged periods of isolation are staggering. On the physiological level, prisoners in isolation show disrupted patterns of sleeping and eating. There are clear psychological signs of distress as well, including anxiety, anger, apathy and inability to focus, preoccupation with death or revenge. Extended periods of time in solitary confinement often lead to profound psychological abnormalities, including full-blown psychosis and hallucinations. If prisoners didn’t have deep-rooted psychological problems or mental illness when they entered solitary confinement, chances are they will when they leave it.
Recent studies have suggested that these changes have a neurological base. Studies of prisoners of war using EEGs have found that the worst instances of damage to the brain were caused by blunt physical trauma to the head and by solitary confinement. Being kept in isolation seems to cause extensive damage to the brain that may or may not be reversible. This is revealed by the fact that many prisoners in solitary eventually experience some sort of psychotic break—they just “snap,” a form of induced mental illness. Perhaps even more compelling is the way that prisoners often act after they are released from solitary confinement. Many of them found it nearly impossible to have normal social interactions, as if in the time spent in solitary they had literally forgotten how to interact with other humans. Solitary confinement should be considered torture, cruel and unusual punishment, not only because of how horrible it is, but also because of its potential to cause profound and lasting psychological and neurological damage.