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Psychological deterioration in solitary confinement

It is difficult to imagine a more disempowering place than a solitary confinement cell in a maximum security prison. When opportunities for meaningful human engagement are removed, mental health difficulties arise with disturbing regularity. In the United States, where prisoners can be held in administrative segregation for years on end, stories of psychological disintegration are common. A senate judiciary subcommittee on solitary confinement was told of a prisoner whose response to his predicament was to stitch his mouth shut using thread from his pillowcase and a makeshift needle. Another chewed off a finger, removed one of his testicles, and sliced off his ear lobes. A third took apart the television set in his cell and ate it.

A person’s sense of self is forged in a social context and is maintained through interaction. In solitude, without the mirroring effect of others, the personality can threaten to disintegrate. This is a frightening prospect, especially when not anticipated.

Denied the opportunity for meaningful contact, the prisoner in solitary confinement is prevented from being fully human. It was observed of one of the litigants in a case involving the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit in California that he had ‘not shaken another person’s hand in 13 years and fears that he has forgotten the feel of human contact. He spends a lot of time wondering what it would feel like to shake the hand of another person.’

When social contact is eliminated, the prisoner is left with a limited range of possibilities, prominent among which are truculence and withdrawal. But because belligerence requires energy and because isolation begets listlessness, a state of passivity often results. The restrictions of the physical environment find behavioural expression in a severely limited repertoire of movement, emotional constriction, and poverty of speech.

The potentially pathological side effects of penal isolation were recognised as soon as prisons designed according to the principle of separation opened their doors. During a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1842, Charles Dickens met men and women who had been separated from their peers and who seemed to have unravelled as a result. The great novelist was shocked by what he witnessed, declaring in American Notes that:

I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

London’s Pentonville prison, which was constructed along similar lines to Eastern State, was excoriated by The Times newspaper as a ‘maniac-making system’.

But there is a dimension of the solitary experience that is seldom recognised. This is the ability on the part of some prisoners to resist the assault on their identities that accompanies prolonged removal from company.

There are a number of common approaches for prisoners mitigate the harmful effects of long stretches of time spent alone in places not of their choosing and to timetables not of their design. One of these is to alleviate the burden of time by ensuring that there is less of it to deal with. This can be done by sleeping more and through the soporific effects of drug use. Some prisoners become absorbed in activities such as creative writing, craftwork, painting, or litigating. Others devise exercise regimes that do not require a training partner but that fill time and bring about a satisfying kind of tiredness.

If prisoners are to survive psychologically it is important that they shift their time orientation. Dwelling on the past and any associated remorse or regret, or obsessing about a future life which is unlikely to arrive in the wished-for format, introduces a degree of fretfulness that is inimical to successful navigation of the temporal landscape. Solitary prisoners who can achieve immersion in the present steal an important advantage over their environment.

A few manage to reinterpret their situation. Prisoners who can devise, or adopt, a frame of reference – often political or religious – that puts their pain in context seem to draw succour from their circumstances. Even in the most unpropitious of environments then, the capacity for human development cannot be completely eradicated.

Featured image: Prison Cell Bars. © tiero via iStock.

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