There may be as many as 80,000 American prisoners currently locked-up in a SHU, or segregated housing unit. Solitary confinement in a SHU can cause irreversible psychological effects in as little as 15 days. Here’s what social isolation does to your brain, and why it should be considered torture.
There’s no universal definition for solitary confinement, but the United Nations describes it as any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others, except guards, for at least 22 hours a day. Some jurisdictions allow prisoners out of their cells for one hour of solitary exercise each day. But meaningful contact with others is typically reduced to a bare minimum. Prisoners are also intentionally deprived of stimulus; available stimuli and the fleetingly rare social contacts are rarely chosen by the prisoners, and are are typically monotonous and inconsiderate of their needs.
As for the jail cell itself, it typically measures 6′ x 10′. Nearly all scenarios for human contact, such as a guard, or medical and family visits, are done through a metal mesh, behind glass partitions, or in hand- and leg-cuffs.
Writing in Wired, Brandon Keim describes the conditions in the cells:
What’s emerged from the reports and testimonies reads like a mix of medieval cruelty and sci-fi dystopia. For 23 hours or more per day, in what’s euphemistically called “administrative segregation” or “special housing,” prisoners are kept in bathroom-sized cells, under fluorescent lights that never shut off. Video surveillance is constant. Social contact is restricted to rare glimpses of other prisoners, encounters with guards, and brief video conferences with friends or family.
For stimulation, prisoners might have a few books; often they don’t have television, or even a radio. In 2011, another hunger strike among California’s prisoners secured such amenities as wool hats in cold weather and wall calendars. The enforced solitude can last for years, even decades.
These horrors are best understood by listening to people who’ve endured them. As one Florida teenager described in a report on solitary confinement in juvenile prisoners, “The only thing left to do is go crazy.”
Prisoners in low and medium security jails are often thrown in the SHU for “just” a few days. But in maximum security prisons, individuals in solitary are held on average for five years, and there are thousands of cases of prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement for decades. Some countries, including the United States, employ the use of Super Maximum Security Prisons, or “Supermax Prisons,” in which solitary confinement is framed as a normal, rather than exceptional, practice for inmates.
Exact statistics are not known, but a 2011 study suggested that 20,000 to 25,000 prisoners in the United States are held in this way. Keim claims that that California holds some 4,500 inmates in solitary confinement, and that there are as many as 80,000 prisoners held in solitary across the United States — more than any other democratic nation.
Human beings are social creatures. Without the benefit of another person to “bounce off of,” the mind decays; without anything to do, the brain atrophies; and without the ability to see off in the distance, vision fades. Isolation and loss of control breeds anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.
Indeed, psychologist Terry Kupers says that solitary confinement “destroys people as human beings.” A quick glance at literature review studies done by Sharon Shalev (2008) and Peter Scharff Smith (2006) affirms this assertion; here are some typical symptoms:
Anxiety: Persistent low level of stress, irritability or anxiousness, fear of impending death, panic attacks
Depression: Emotional flatness/blunting and the loss of ability to have any “feelings”, mood swings, hopelessness, social withdrawal, loss of initiation of activity or ideas, apathy, lethargy, major depression
Anger: Irritability and hostility, poor impulse control, outbursts of physical and verbal violence against others, self, and objects, unprovoked angers, sometimes manifested as rage
Cognitive disturbances: Short attention span, poor concentration and memory, confused thought processes, disorientation
Perceptual distortions: Hypersensitivity to noises and smells, distortions of sensation (e.g. walls closing in), disorientation in time and space, depersonalization/derealization, hallucinations affecting all five senses (e.g. hallucinations of objects or people appearing in the cell, or hearing voices when no one is speaking
Paranoia and psychosis: Recurrent and persistent thoughts, often of a violent and vengeful character (e.g. directed against prison staff), paranoid ideas (often persecutory), psychotic episodes or states, psychotic depression, schizophrenia
Self-harm: self-mutilation and cutting, suicide attempts
In California, it has been shown that inmates are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than other prisoners incarcerated elsewhere in the state. Disturbingly, solitary confinement beyond 15 days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. But for some, it can manifest in even less time. What’s more, a significant number of individuals will experience serious health problems regardless of specific conditions of time, place, and pre-existing personal factors.
In terms of prevalence, somewhere between 8% and 19% of American prisoners will experience significant psychiatric or functional disabilities, while another 15% to 20% will require some form of psychiatric intervention during their incarceration. Figures in Europe are comparable.
The American Psychiatric Association says that up to 20% of all prisoners are “seriously mentally ill” whereas up to 5% are “actively psychotic at any given moment.” About 4% of inmates have schizophrenia or some other psychotic disorder, nearly 19% suffer from depression, and around 4% have bipolar disorder
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