Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement

“[Solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of
psychoses--seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates
and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from
mental infirmities.”
—Ruiz v. Johnson (2001) (1)

Solitary confinement is when a prisoner is put in a cell for twenty three to twenty four hours a day without contact to any other human, for weeks/months and even years on end.

It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in
isolation, they will go insane…. It’s a big problem in the
California system, putting large numbers in the SHUs…
Most people in isolation will fall apart.” 
— Sandra Schank, staff psychiatrist, Mule Creek Prison (2)

Research has been carried out over the years on solitary confinement patients and it has shown that being left in isolation does alter neural and therefore psychological states. Research shows that even a week in solitary confinement raises stress levels, tension and anxiety. Self-mutilation (self - harm and even suicide) is very common amongst Solitary confinement prisoners.

A 2007 study examining  attempted suicide in the prison
system identified solitary confinement as a major factor in
suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
"I started hearing voices and losing control of my own
thoughts...I really started noticing more when I started
being in the hole...It just started getting worse for me."
—Participant 22 (3)

A prisoner left in Solitary confinement induces a specific psychiatric disorder characterized by: hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and impulse control problems. This leads to high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.

Hypersensitivity to external stimuli:

This is when a person becomes sensitive or highly agitated by external factors which can include, sound, smell, light and taste.   


Hallucinations are false or distorted sensory experiences that appear to be real perceptions. These sensory impressions are generated by the mind rather than by any external stimuli, and may be seen, heard, felt, and even smelled or tasted.

Panic attacks:

Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or apprehension that are of sudden onset and of variable duration of minutes to hours. Panic attacks usually begin abruptly, may reach a peak within 10 minutes, but may continue for much longer if the sufferer had the attack triggered by a situation from which they are not able to escape. In panic attacks that continue unabated, and are triggered by a situation from which the sufferer desires to escape, some sufferers may make frantic efforts to escape, which may be violent if others attempt to contain the sufferer.

Cognitive deficits:

Cognitive deficit, also known as cognitive impairment is an inclusive term to describe any characteristic that acts as a barrier to cognitive performance. The term may describe deficits in global intellectual performance, such as mental retardation, it may describe specific deficits in cognitive abilities (learning disorders, dyslexia), or it may describe drug-induced cognitive/memory impairment, such as that seen with alcohol and the benzodiazepines. Cognitive deficits may be congenital or caused by environmental factors such as brain injuries, neurological disorders, or mental illness

Obsessive thinking:

Obsessions are a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Obsessions are defined as recurring, persistent thoughts, impulses, and/or images that are viewed as intrusive and inappropriate. Obsessions often cause considerable distress and anxiety.


A mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.

Impulse Control Disorder:

An impulse control disorder or ICD is a class of psychiatric disorders characterised by impulsivity – failure to resist a temptation, urge or impulse that may harm oneself or others. Many psychiatric disorders feature impulsivity, including substance-related disorders, paraphilias, antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, schizophrenia and mood disorders.

1. Human Rights Watch (2003), Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness 149 n. 513 (New York: Human Rights Watch)
2. Ruiz v Johnson, 154 F.Supp.2d 975 (S.D.Tex.2001).
3. Suto, I. (2007), Inmates Who Attempted Suicide in Prison: A Qualitative Study.‖ School of Professional Psychology. Paper 46.

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