What Are the Psychological Effects of Long-Term Solitary Confinement?

April 16, 2024

Many of you, at some point, may have wondered about what life in solitary confinement entails. Images from popular media may come to mind – tiny cells, minimal human contact, and the daunting prospect of having to spend 23 hours a day, seven days a week in isolation. Prisoners in solitary confinement find themselves in a constant state of imposed solitude, with minimal sensory stimulation and a lack of control over their environment.

In this article, we delve deep into solitary confinement’s effects on mental health, the data surrounding its impact, and the policy implications for prisons and the incarcerated population.

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The Reality of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is a punishment or protective measure used in prisons where inmates are held in cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little to no human interaction. The practice has been controversial, with critics arguing it is cruel and unusual punishment, while supporters claim it is necessary to maintain order and safety within prisons.

Solitary confinement can last for days, months or even years. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, some prisoners can spend up to 20 years in isolation. The psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement can be severe, leading to serious mental health issues.

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The Physical and Mental Health Effects of Solitary Confinement

Long-term confinement in isolated units (IMUs) can have both physical and mental health effects. Being confined to a small space for a prolonged period can lead to a severe lack of physical exercise, which can result in various health problems, like heart disease or obesity.

On the mental health front, prisoners in solitary confinement often experience a range of negative psychological effects, including anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.

According to a research carried out using the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS), inmates in long-term solitary confinement scored significantly higher on measures of anxiety, depression, anger, and hallucinatory experiences, compared to the general prison population.

The Data on Solitary Confinement and Mental Health

When looking at the data surrounding solitary confinement, the numbers are alarming. A study conducted by the American Journal of Public Health found that prisoners in solitary confinement were seven times more likely to harm themselves or attempt suicide than those in general population.

It’s important to note that the rates of mental illness in the incarcerated population are already high compared to the general population. The added stress and isolation of solitary confinement can exacerbate existing mental health conditions or even trigger new ones.

The data also indicates that the psychological effects of solitary confinement can persist long after prisoners have been released. Former inmates who spent time in solitary confinement often have difficulty reintegrating into society and are more likely to reoffend.

The Policy Implications for Prisons and the Incarcerated Population

The psychological effects of solitary confinement have serious implications for prison policy and the treatment of the incarcerated population. There’s a growing consensus among health professionals that solitary confinement is not only harmful but also ineffective as a behavioral management tool.

Many believe that the use of solitary confinement should be limited, if not abolished, and that alternative methods of maintaining order and safety in prisons should be explored. This could mean implementing more humane living conditions, providing better mental health services, and employing strategies that promote socialization rather than isolation.

Despite these recommendations, change has been slow. Solitary confinement is still widely used in prisons, including for vulnerable populations such as the mentally ill and juveniles. However, as awareness of its harmful effects increases, there are hopes for reform.

Solitary Confinement: A Call for Change

In conclusion, solitary confinement can have profound and lasting effects on prisoners’ mental health. As we have seen, this practice often leads to severe psychological symptoms and an increased risk of self-harm or suicide. The data is clear, and the call for change is loud. It’s time for the prison system to reconsider the use of solitary confinement and to prioritize the mental health of the incarcerated population.

Solitary Confinement and its Relation to Human Rights

The practice of solitary confinement is a contentious issue, opening up debates concerning human rights and ethics. It is not just the mental health implications, but also the ethical and legal aspects that have made solitary confinement a focus of contention in the United States and beyond.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Mandela Rules, stipulate that keeping a prisoner in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days constitutes cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. The Mandela Rules further argue that prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of 15 days, should be absolutely prohibited.

In the U.S., however, the practice is far from this standard. Data from the Department of Corrections shows that a significant percentage of the incarcerated population in states like North Carolina and Washington State spend considerable time in solitary. This clearly shows a discrepancy between international human rights standards and the realities of the American prison system.

Critically, the rights to physical health and mental integrity of prisoners are often overlooked. The extreme isolation frequently causes severe psychological distress and mental illness among incarcerated people, which could be seen as a violation of their human rights. Also, this issue extends beyond prisoners’ release, as the effects of solitary confinement can persist, complicating their reintegration into society and increasing their likelihood to reoffend.

Long-Term Effects of Solitary Confinement on Public Health

The long-term psychological effects of solitary confinement do not remain confined within prison walls. They spill over into society, impacting public health and creating a cycle of reoffending that is detrimental to communities and the public purse.

Post-release, many former inmates struggle with the lingering mental health effects solitary confinement has had on them. This includes, but is not limited to, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, and depression. A study by the University of California, Irvine, found heightened levels of these conditions among former inmates who had spent time in solitary.

These psychological effects can make it challenging for individuals to lead normal lives following their release. They may struggle to secure employment, maintain relationships, or simply adjust to life outside of confinement. This can lead to a higher likelihood of reoffending, which further burdens the public health and criminal justice systems.

In Summation: A Prison System in Need of Reform

Solitary confinement, as a method of punishment and control in prisons, clearly has severe and long-lasting effects on mental health. Moreover, it raises serious human rights concerns and has a significant impact on public health.

The practice is at odds with international human rights standards, such as the Mandela Rules, which call for the prohibition of prolonged solitary confinement. Furthermore, its continued use contributes to high rates of mental illness among the prison population, exacerbating the already significant public health challenges related to incarceration.

The evidence presented here underscores the urgent need for reform within the prison system, particularly in the United States. It’s clear that alternatives to solitary confinement must be explored, and mental health services within prisons need to be vastly improved. This change is not only necessary for the wellbeing of incarcerated individuals, but also to ensure a safer and healthier society.