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Is Solitary Confinement Torture?

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment inflicted on those who break prison rules. In the world of corrections, it goes by many names: segregation, lockdown, isolation, the special handling unit. Among prison inmates, it’s known as the hotbox, the hole, the cooler, the pound.

In America’s supermax prisons, where the most incorrigibly violent offenders are held, solitary confinement is normal procedure for difficult-to-handle inmates. And, at any given time, 80,000 prisoners in the United States are in isolation. That means being held in a small cell about the size of a walk-in closet for 23 out of 24 hours. The only human contact is with guards and is brief.

Life in Segregation

Prisons are violent places and, in Canada, about 15 percent of prisoners in isolation are there at their own request as protection from beatings or worse. Some inmates are put in segregation because they are at serious risk of self-harm and need to be put on suicide watch, which is difficult in the general prison population. The other 85 percent are in “the hole” against their wishes.

In the United States, there are purpose-built prisons that only have solitary confinement cells. One such is the Special Handling Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California. Opened in 1989, the SHU houses about 1,200 inmates who live in grey-painted, poured-concrete cells with no windows.

Inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay will have committed violent acts in other prisons or been identified as members of prison gangs. The average stay is eight years, although some convicts have spent decades in isolation.

Laura Sullivan reported for National Public Radio in 2006 that “Although all the inmates are in isolation, there’s lots of noise: Keys rattle. Toilets flush. Inmates shout to each other from one cell to the next. Twice a day, officers push plastic food trays through the small portals in the metal doors.”

Effects of Isolation

Long-term segregation can cause some serious psychological problems.

Among the mental health issues that develop are memory loss, depression, panic attacks, difficulty socializing, hallucinations, and heightened sensitivity to noise.

Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in isolation in the Louisiana State Prison, Angola, even though the conviction that put him there was overturned three times. In February 2016, Mr. Woodfox became a free man after the prosecution dropped its push for yet another retrial.

He has described the experience of solitary as “standing at the edge of nothingness, looking at emptiness.”

Solitary confinement can cause serious mental health issues.

Solitary confinement can cause serious mental health issues.

One of the best-known individual accounts of life in isolation is that of Terry Anderson. The Associated Press reporter was held hostage by Islamic militants in Lebanon from March 1985 to December 1991; a lot of that time was spent in solitary confinement. He wrote about the experience in his 1995 book Den of Lions.

After just a month, Anderson wrote, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, grey-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”

He had spells of trembling that occurred for no apparent reason and, at one point, started banging his head against the wall.

Another famous person to go through isolation was former U.S. presidential candidate John McCain. He spent two years in solitary confinement in Vietnam after he was shot down and captured in October 1967. In a 2002 biography, McCain said, “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Both Anderson and McCain emerged from their ordeals and were able to live normal lives; many others are not so fortunate.

A view from a cell.

A view from a cell.

The Devastation of Confinement

While isolated prisoners account for just three percent of those incarcerated in the U.S., half of all successful prison suicides happen in solitary confinement cells.

According to Reverend Richard Killmer of Campaigns to Stop Torture, “schizophrenia, paranoia can develop . . . it’s a very serious matter.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian told The Globe and Mail newspaper that “People who have been in long-term solitary confinement almost inevitably emerge with major impairments in their ability to cope with the larger world and the larger community. It is almost a miracle that any of them learn to live in the free world.”

Juan Mendez was the United Nation’s special representative on torture. In October 2011, he told Anna Maria Tremonte (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Current) that solitary confinement for more than 15 days should be banned. He said it should never be used at all with inmates who have mental health problems.

In the view of Juan Mendez, solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and meets the definition of torture (see poll below).

Dr. Ivan Zinger is executive director of the Office of the Correctional Investigator in Canada. He told The Globe and Mail, “There should be an absolute prohibition on the practice of placing mentally ill offenders and those at risk of suicide or serious injury in prolonged segregation.”

The advocacy group Solitary Watch adds that “Solitary confinement is also expensive, in large part because of added staffing costs. One study estimated that the average per-cell cost of housing an inmate in a supermax prison is $75,000, as opposed to $25,000 for an inmate in the general population.” And, says Solitary Watch, isolating inmates actually increases the likelihood of re-offending and doesn’t reduce violence.

Meal time at Guantanamo Bay. Guards wear masks because sometimes urine or feces will come flying out of the food portal.

Meal time at Guantanamo Bay. Guards wear masks because sometimes urine or feces will come flying out of the food portal.

Alternatives to Solitary Confinement

Reporting for The New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote about how the British developed strategies to prevent violence in prisons rather than waiting until it occurred and applying increasingly harsh sanctions on those involved.

Perhaps, authorities theorized, the difficult conditions of incarceration were causing violence. So, they gave problem inmates more control over their environments with opportunities for education and work and counselling to improve social interactions. Mental health treatment was made available, and prisoners could “earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, ‘contact visits,’ and even access to cooking facilities.”

“The results have been impressive,” writes Dr. Gawande. “The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, (population 62 million) there are now fewer prisoners in ‘extreme custody’ than there are in the state of Maine (population 1.3 million).”

Dr. Gawande adds that most other countries have used the same approach of violence prevention and halting solitary confinement.

If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.

Bonus Factoid

James Norris was an American held in isolation in the Bethlem Royal Hospital, London, in the early 19th century. He was confined in iron shackles for more than 10 years for an unnamed lunacy. When his plight became known in 1814, he was freed from his restraints, but he died within a few weeks because his health had been so weakened by the conditions in which he had been kept. His story led to the passing of the Mad House Act of 1828 that created licensing and regulation of insane asylums.

James Norris.

James Norris.


  • “The Ethics of Solitary Confinement.” Al Jazeera, March 26, 2013.
  • “Hellhole.” Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, March 30, 2009.
  • “Den of Lions: A Startling Memoir of Survival and Triumph.” Terry Anderson, Ballantine Books, 1995.
  • “Solitary Confinement Isn’t Punishment. It’s Torture.” Jasmine Heiss, The Guardian, July 2, 2015.
  • “John McCain.” Richard Kozar, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.
  • “Solitary Confinement.” CBC The Current, October 20, 2011.
  • “Canadian Prisons ‘Out of Step’ on Solitary Confinement.” Kirk Makin, The Globe and Mail, March 21, 2013.
  • “The High Cost of Solitary Confinement.” Solitary Watch, 2011.
  • “How I Feel about Bedlam, as Someone who Might Have Been in There.” Eleanor Margolis, New Statesman, October 10, 2016.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Suzie from Carson City on April 11, 2017:

Rupert. While this is most educational as well as controversial, it remains currently, a huge issue for debate, in terms of complete overhaul here in the U.S. Progress is ongoing but slow.

It's tough for me personally to be active in debate and/or discussions on this, based on the nature of the beast. I have a tendency to be a bleeding heart for the good and not-so-good alike.

I can easily comprehend the egregiousness of this practice yet also find it understandable that the inmates who are the subjects of this issue must be dealt with in immediate, top priority, 100% safe and secure methods for their sake and that of all staff & other inmates.

I do however contend that much of the same results needed, can be met more humanely and to the positive end overall. No one, I'm certain would suggest these hardened & dangerous criminals be offered a year at a Caribbean resort. All heads need to be included in the various studies, research and quest for rehabilitative solutions.

Thank you for your ever-provocative work. Paula

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 11, 2017:


You raise a lot of questions for which there are no good answers. I do not know what can be done with the absolute incorrigibles. But I do think that the prison system needs to be more selective about who it puts in solitary.

Texaspup on April 10, 2017:

I was an Officer in a Federal Prison. What do you do with those that have so little regard for Human life, that they attack and/or kill EVERY time they are given a cell mate or allowed to be in contact with others? There has to be some form of control in a justice system that has tied the hands of the prison system. Should we go back to the old days of just throwing the criminals all together in one place, locking the door, and coming back a few months later and see who is still alive? Very few of inmates cause the issues, but those few injure and kill so many. So do we allow those few to hurt or kill other inmates or do we intervene? If repeated short stays don't work, additional charges don't work, gaining/losing privileges don't work, what do you do? "Oh Inmate Jones, gee, you only bloodied 5 people in the dining hall today, instead of your usual 20! Lets give you a trophy!" Who protects the rights of those just trying to do their time and go home, from those who will never go home and take pride snandd trying to keep others from going home? John McCain was a different situation. He was innocent of real crimes, and had no idea from day to day if he would be killed. John McCain's behavior did not dictate his treatment. Inmates in Prison do dictate their circumstances.

Pax Pacis from North Carolina on November 28, 2016:

Let's not forget these are folks who commit horrible crimes, or are violent inside the system. If it wasn't needed, it wouldn't exist (due to higher cost). You can't have these people running around inside the prison killing other inmates and causing riots.

Jim Barghini from Eagan, Miinesota on November 26, 2016:

I think it was a primary idea learned from early prison reform in Pennsylvania. Quakers identified reform remained possible, but solitary confinement proved inhumane.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on November 25, 2016:

Important work, Rupert. I've done a complete turnaround on the criminal justice issues (for the most part) and solitary is one of those issues. I get that it is needed for punishment but more than a week is detrimental. It's extreme and eventually makes the prisoner more dangerous. Are state prisons need overhauling (and more budget). I'm even against sentences of life without parole because it just creates more desperate people willing to kill fellow inmates and staff.

But in the case of the federal supermax prisons where guys like the Unabomber, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen are kept in solitary for most of the day, I have no sympathy. They committed horrible crimes over long periods of time that hurt their country and those helping us.

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