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Is Solitary Confinement Torture?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be 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, or the special handling unit. Among prison inmates, it’s known as the hotbox, the hole, the cooler, and 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. 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.”

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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 is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

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