The Danish Gulag
Solitary confinement is known to ravage people’s minds
Denmark has used solitary confinement of pre-trial detainees for decades. The effects of solitary confinement on mental health are undeniable. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry online, solitary confinement can cause an array of mental disorders, as well as provoke an already existing mental disorder in a prisoner, causing more trauma and symptoms.
Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life
The headline of an article in The New York Times,
The following is taken from Department of Applied Psychology, New York State University, by Mary Murphy Corcoran Copyright © 2018 by New York University |
Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Well Being of Prison Inmates
Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement
Confined inmates experience a multitude of psychological effects, including emotional, cognitive, and psychosis-related symptoms (Smith, 2006; Shalev, 2008). Solitary confinement is considered harmful to the mental health of inmates because it restricts meaningful social contact, a psychological stimulus that humans need in order to remain healthy and functioning (Smith, 2006). Longer stays in solitary confinement are associated with greater mental health symptoms that have serious emotional and behavioural consequences. (Smith, 2006; Shalev, 2008).
Emotional and behavioural effects of solitary confinement.
The majority of those held in solitary confinement experience adverse emotional effects that can range from acute to chronic, depending on the individual and the length of stay in isolation (Shalev, 2008). Confined prisoners also report feelings of panic and rage, including irritability, hostility, and poor impulse control. Additionally, they frequently exhibit symptoms of anxiety that vary from low levels of stress to severe panic attacks. Isolated inmates also experience symptoms of depression, such as hopelessness, mood swings, and withdrawal. These depressive symptoms may even escalate to thoughts of self-harm and suicide. As compared to the general prison population, rates of suicide and self-harm, such as cutting and banging one’s head against the cell wall, are particularly high in prisoners assigned to solitary confinement (Haney, 2003; Shalev, 2008; Greist, 2012).
Many of the issues that confined prisoners have during isolation are also prevalent post-isolation. Those who are isolated also exhibit maladjustment disorders and problems with aggression, both during confinement and afterwards (Briggs et al., 2003). Furthermore, inmates often have difficulty adjusting to social contact post-isolation and may engage in increased prison misconduct and express hostility towards correctional officers. (Weir, 2012; Dingfelder, 2012; Constanzo, Martinez, Klebe, Torrence & Livengood, 2012). While cases in which inmates have exhibited positive behavioural change after isolation have been documented, such a result is rare (Smith, 2006).
Cognitive effects of solitary confinement
In addition to having disruptions in their emotional processes, inmates’ cognitive processes tend to deteriorate while they are in isolation. Some confined inmates report memory loss, and a significant portion of isolated inmates report impaired concentration (Smith, 2006; Shalev, 2008). Many are unable to read or watch television since these activities are their few sources of entertainment. Confined inmates also report feeling extremely confused and disoriented in time and space (Haney, 2003; Shalev, 2008).
Psychosis-related effects of solitary confinement
Another confinement related psychological symptom that inmates may experience is disrupted thinking, defined as an inability to maintain a coherent flow of thoughts. This disrupted thinking can result in symptoms of psychosis (Haney, 2003; Shalev, 2008). Inmates who exhibit these symptoms of psychosis often report experiencing hallucinations, illusions, and intense paranoia, such as a persistent belief that they are being persecuted (Shalev, 2008). In extreme cases, inmates have become paranoid to the point that they exhibit full-blown psychosis that requires hospitalization (Smith, 2006).
The aforementioned mental health difficulties are not anomalies. Confined inmates often describe feelings of extreme mental duress after only a couple of days in solitary confinement (Haney, 2003; Smith, 2006).
Some researchers have even compared confined inmates to victims of torture or trauma because many of the acute effects produced by solitary confinement mimic the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. It is unclear how long these symptoms persist after release from solitary, but they are at least prevalent during and immediately after solitary confinement for most inmates (Haney, 2003).
The existing literature demonstrates that solitary confinement has both significant physiological effects, such as gastrointestinal upset and hypertension and psychological effects, including psychosis and depression (Shalev, 2008).
These findings suggest that the physiological and psychological consequences of solitary confinement are extremely dangerous to the well being of inmates. However, research regarding psychological effects is limited by the fact that many inmates are mentally ill prior to incarceration, making it difficult to distinguish whether psychological symptoms are directly produced by solitary confinement. Additionally, research is limited by the settings in which the studies must be conducted. Naturalistic studies conducted in actual prisons do not have control groups (Constanzo et al., 2012; Smith, 2006), while studies using contrived settings are also limited because they cannot fully mimic the harsh conditions of prisons due to the researchers’ ethical obligations. For example, the volunteers in studies using contrived settings are confined for much shorter periods of time compared to actual inmates (Bonta & Gendreau, 1990). Thus, these findings cannot be accurately compared to the real-life experiences of prisoners (Smith, 2006).
While these limitations must be considered, this research has serious implications for policy(Griest, 2012). Future evaluations of solitary confinement must be conducted to determine whether solitary confinement can be safely used in prisons or if it should be limited or eliminated (Griest, 2012). In addition, there is a definite need to find alternative incarceration methods to effectively manage the behaviours of inmates without causing harm to their physical and mental health. Developing new incarceration methods is particularly important to ensure the well-being of confined inmates who are mentally ill prior to incarceration (Bonta & Gendreau, 1990).
Bonta, J., & Gendreau, P. (1990). Reexamining the cruel and unusual punishment of prison life. Law and Human Behavior, 14(4), 347-372.
Briggs, C. S., Sundt, J. L., & Castellano, T. C. (2003). The effect of supermaximum security prisons on aggregate levels of institutional violence. Criminology, 41(4), 1341-1376.
Costanzo, M. L., Martinez, R. L., Klebe, K. J. Torrence, N. D., & Livengood, M. L. (2012, August). Predictors of placement into correctional solitary confinement. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Colorado Springs.
Dingfelder, S. (2012). Psychologist testifies about the dangers of solitary confinement. Monitor on Psychology, 43(9), 10.
Griest, S. E. (2012). The torture of solitary. The Wilson Quarterly, 36(2), 22-29.
Haney, C. (2003). Mental health issues in long-term solitary and supermax confinement. Crime & Delinquency, 49(1), 124-156.
O’Keefe, M. L. (2008). Administrative segregation from within: A corrections perspective. The Prison Journal, 88(1), 123-143.
Shalev, S. (2008). The health effects of solitary confinement. In Sourcebook on solitary confinement. Retrieved from http://solitaryconfinement.org
Smith, P. S. (2006). The effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates: A brief history and review of the literature. Crime and Justice, 34(1), 441-528.
Weir, K. (2012). Alone, in ‘the hole’: Psychologists probe the mental health effects of solitary confinement.
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In an interview with Life Science in 2015, Peter Scharff Smith from the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen said:
“The effects of solitary confinement on a prisoner’s well-being is a subject that has been debated since the first half of the 20th century, according to Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen. While several studies have downplayed the negative effects of isolating prisoners for long periods of time, many more have concluded that this practice is quite harmful on both a physiological and psychological level, Scharff Smith told Live Science.
“When you look at all of the available research, it’s pretty clear that solitary confinement is dangerous. There’s clearly a risk of negative effects on health,” he said.
Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments
Though the specific conditions of solitary confinement differ from one institution to the next, most prisons use “solitary” as a form of disciplinary punishment or to help keep order, according to Scharff Smith, who wrote an extensive review of studies on the effects of this imprisonment practice for the journal Crime and Justice in 2006.
“What these studies show, if you look at them together, is that the main issue or problem [with solitary confinement] is the lack of psychologically meaningful social contact,” Scharff Smith said. Prisoners in solitary are usually kept in a small, locked cell for 23 hours a day and have very few interactions with other human beings (apart from the guards who escort them outside their cells for exercise or showers) he added.
This lack of social stimulation is linked to a slew of side effects that researchers have observed in prisoners who have spent time in solitary confinement. Some of the reported symptoms include anger, hatred, bitterness, boredom, stress, loss of a sense of reality, suicidal thoughts, trouble sleeping, confusion, trouble concentrating, depression and hallucinations.
Why does a lack of social interaction lead to so many negative side effects? One theory, posed by Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, is that the brain actually needs positive human interactions to stay healthy. Social interaction may activate growth factors in the brain, helping brain cells regrow, Akil said at a 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Further, the problems that solitary confinement cause are not purely psychological. Studies have also linked this form of isolation to more physical symptoms, including chronic headaches, heart palpitations, oversensitivity to light and noise stimuli, muscle pain, weight loss, digestive problems, dizziness and loss of appetite.”
It is used to isolate a detainee during the pre-trial stage of the investigation, often as part of coercive interrogation, and it can be used to lock away prisoners who have – or are perceived to have – mental illnesses.
While there is no universally agreed definition of solitary confinement – often also called ‘segregation’, ‘isolation’, ‘lockdown’ or ‘super-max’ – it is commonly understood to be the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, and allowed only minimal meaningful interaction with others.
Contact with family or visitors is often restricted or denied altogether, despite the fact that contact with family in particular, has been shown to be an important factor in successful rehabilitation.
Medical research shows that the denial of meaningful human contact can cause ‘isolation syndrome’, the symptoms of which include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. Prolonged isolation can destroy a person’s personality and their mental health and its effects may last long after the end of the period of segregation.
Solitary confinement increases the risk of torture or ill-treatment going unnoticed and undetected, and it can in itself constitute torture and ill-treatment, in particular where it is prolonged or indefinite.
Any form of isolation should be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible, and with appropriate procedural safeguards in place. Where solitary confinement is used, prison regimes must ensure that prisoners have meaningful social contact with others, for example by raising the level of staff-prisoner contact; allowing access to social activities with other prisoners and more visits; arranging in-depth talks with psychologists, psychiatrists, religious prison personnel and volunteers from the local community; maintaining and developing relationships with family and friends; and by providing meaningful in cell and out of cell activities.
Contrary to popular belief, solitary confinement is not reserved only for the most dangerous prisoners. Often it is imposed to isolate detainees during the pre-trial stage of the investigation, including as part of coercive interrogation. Solitary confinement for pretrial detainees has, for example, being part of Scandinavian prison practice for many years. It is also used to lock away prisoners with – or who are perceived to have – mental illnesses.
The routine use of solitary confinement has been growing and is becoming an increasingly common feature of high-security and ‘super-max’ prisons designed to hold prisoners who are deemed high-risk or difficult to control. In the United States, for example, an estimated 80,000-100,000 individuals are being held in ‘restricted housing’ – forms of housing involving a substantial amount of isolation – and these units are becoming more common elsewhere too.
Many countries use prolonged periods of solitary confinement or semi-isolation for those serving a life sentence, often separating them from the rest of the prison population for the entirety of their sentence. In countries still using the death penalty, and in those where it was only recently abolished, death row prisoners are also typically held in strict solitary confinement.
The UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and the Bangkok Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners, absolutely prohibit the use of solitary confinement for children and pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers in prison respectively. The Istanbul Statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement explicitly recommends that solitary confinement should not be applied to death row and life-sentenced prisoners. The UN Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners state that efforts to abolish solitary confinement as a punishment or to restrict its use should be undertaken and encouraged.
The revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) state that ‘Imprisonment and other measures which result in cutting off an offender from the outside world are afflictive by the very fact of taking from the person the right of self-determination by depriving him of his liberty. Therefore the prison system shall not, except as incidental to justifiable segregation or the maintenance of discipline, aggravate the suffering inherent in such a situation.’ (Rule 3). They define solitary confinement as ‘confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact’. Beyond an absolute prohibition of its indefinite or prolonged use (in excess of 15 days), the Rules state that ‘solitary confinement shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority’. Furthermore, they call on measures to alleviate the potentially detrimental effects of separated confinement for the prisoners concerned.
In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recommended a ban on prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement as a punishment or extortion technique. Such treatment runs contrary to the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment and is a ‘harsh’ measure, undermining the goals of rehabilitation, the primary aim of a criminal justice system.