How Solitary Confinement Breaks the Mind

Isolation dulls cognitive functions, boosts anxiety
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 10, 2015 1:04 PM CDT
How Solitary Confinement Breaks the Mind
A sign rests on a sandstone carving on the Great Western Staircase before a rally against solitary confinement April 22, 2015, in Albany, NY.   (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The damaging effects of solitary confinement on a prisoner can appear within three months, sometimes sooner. Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for 43 years, though he could be released from Louisiana State Penitentiary as early as Friday. Since 1972, Woodfox has spent 23 hours a day in a tiny cell that can be crossed in just four paces, the Los Angeles Times reports, but how he'll cope on the outside isn't clear. In a piece last year, Time reported prisoners in long-term isolation are subject to panic attacks, paranoia, disordered thinking, anger, and compulsive actions, like incessant pacing or cleaning, while their basic cognitive functions dim. They also have a hard time sleeping at night. "Without stimulation, people's brains will move toward stupor and delirium—and often people won't recover from it," the magazine reported, noting many are "incapable of tolerating their new environment" when eventually released.

Already, Woodfox is battling "serious health problems caused or made worse by his years of close confinement," a rep for Amnesty International says. Both Amnesty and the United Nations agree his treatment has been "inhumane," reports Time. As many as 80,000 US inmates may be in solitary confinement at any one time, reports Christian Science Monitor, though some states are working to reduce that number amid higher rates of reoffending and suicide among the isolated. Still, some say solitary confinement serves a purpose. "For some people, solitary confinement is the only responsible way to incarcerate them," says a criminal sentencing expert. However, he adds, "solitary confinement is something that ought to be used as a last resort, because I don't think it promotes mental health, so you're not creating better citizens" upon release. (A lawsuit reveals the horrors of solitary confinement at Colorado's Supermax.)

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