Addressing Solitary Confinement

During the time it took me to write this brief article I stood up several times walking 30ft away into the kitchen and made dinner. By the time I had finished writing, I was emotionally overwhelmed with what a gift that is, that I can make my own meal of whatever I choose whenever I see fit.


In one notorious study from the 1950s, University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow placed rhesus monkeys inside a custom-designed solitary chamber nicknamed “the pit of despair.” Shaped like an inverted pyramid, the chamber had slippery sides that made climbing out all but impossible. After a day or two, 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.” Harlow also found that monkeys kept in isolation wound up “profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.” Most readjusted eventually, but not those that had been caged the longest. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow found. -Pp. 157–166 in: Roots of Behavior (E.L. Bliss, ed.). New York: Harper. 1962.

A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch found that anywhere from one-fifth to two-thirds of prisoners in solitary confinement are believed to have some form of mental illness.

I took one of my employees to lunch several months ago. He spent from ages 20 through his 27th birthday in solitary confinement. I asked him over our meal “what was it like to be alone for that long?”

Not knowing how long he’d be in “the hole” he said he began rehearsing what he would do if he was attacked when he got out. Days passed, then months, then several years went by. Each day, every hour… every few minutes even, his mind would re-visit the same defensive moves over, and over, and over again. He kept track of the time between his meals and the hours until his mandated 1 hour walk in a 3oft by 8ft cage for “recreational” time — again, by himself.

By the time he was released he had developed a secondary personality. I asked him to describe as best he could what that alternate version of him was. He said “it’s like uh, a body guard or security guard. He watches every corner of the room and is always aware of 100% of his surroundings.”

Lacey’s been out of prison for 7 years now. “It’s only been the last few years that I’ve been able to sit in a chair that isn’t in the corner of the room furthest from the door and with my back to the wall.” I asked him what he meant. “Anywhere. A restaurant, going to Mass with my fiancee. Everywhere.”

In a study of inmates at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, psychologist Craig Haney found that prisoners “lose the ability to initiate or to control their own behavior, or to organize their own lives.” Haney, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, attributed this loss to the near total lack of control that prisoners have over their day-to-day lives in solitary.

This is when we have to ask ourselves the question: what value does solitary confinement have for our Justice system? If the Corrections department is to correct behavior, what role does irreparable damage have in correcting undesirable behaviors? I would venture to say the majority of educated adults if pushed to answer this question would concede it shouldn’t play a role. Most would be hard-pressed to find an alternative to disciplinary action for violent individuals, however.

There’s a document titled: “Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs.” Here’s a few points from their state’s commissioned research answers.

  • The development of an objective criteria for placement in administrative segregation (solitary confinement)
  • A mandate that prisoners in Mississippi may be held in administrative segregation only if they have committed serious infractions, are active high-level members of a gang, or have prior escapes or escape attempts from a secure facility
  • A process mandating a 90-day review for all prisoners in administrative segregation and a written case plan for each prisoner specifying what he/she must do to gain release from administrative segregation.
  • The creation of a step-down unit for those prisoners in need of mental health facilities which would function alongside the MDOC (Mississippi Department of Corrections)

What you see here is that Mississippi developed a system of intentionality that is fatally absent among so many correctional systems. Reform has to come from the decision to implement change, which is what they did so their prison population was no longer tortured and left mangled by the devastation solitary confinement inevitably brings on any human subjected to it’s unforgiving punishment.


In 1951 researchers at McGill University paid a group of male graduate students to stay in small chambers equipped with only a bed for an experiment on sensory deprivation. They could leave to use the bathroom, but that’s all. They wore goggles and earphones to limit their sense of sight and hearing, and gloves to limit their sense of touch. The plan was to observe students for six weeks, but not one lasted more than seven days. Nearly every student lost the ability “to think clearly about anything for any length of time,” while several others began to suffer hallucinations. “One man could see nothing but dogs,” wrote one of the study’s collaborators, “another nothing but eyeglasses of various types, and so on.”

Would you like to be alone, all day, every day, in a small cement room for six weeks straight? Would you want your 13 year old son or daughter left alone in a room for 23 hrs a day for months at a time? Can you imagine what damage that would do to them developmentally? The answer is frankly, no, you cannot. Because psychiatrists and psychologists themselves, people who have spent decades of their lives studying exactly this, have never been able to articulate the damage accurately. They say it’s too extensive to quantitate.

Thank God for what the President just did.

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