Neuroscientists Make a Case Against Solitary Confinement

Prolonged social isolation can do severe, long-lasting damage to the brain.

Robert King spent 29 years living alone in a six by nine-foot prison cell.

He was part of the “Angola Three” — a trio of men kept in solitary confinement for decades and named for the Louisiana state penitentiary where they were held. King was released in 2001 after a judge overturned his 1973 conviction for killing a fellow inmate. Since his exoneration he has dedicated his life to raising awareness about the psychological harms of solitary confinement.

“People want to know whether or not I have psychological problems, whether or not I’m crazy — ‘How did you not go insane?’” King told a packed session at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting here this week. “I look at them and I tell them, ‘I did not tell you I was not insane.’ I don’t mean I was psychotic or anything like that, but being placed in a six by nine by 12–foot cell for 23 hours a day, no matter how you appear on the outside, you are not sane.”

There are an estimated 80,000 people, mostly men, in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. They are confined to windowless cells roughly the size of a king bed for 23 hours a day, with virtually no human contact except for brief interactions with prison guards. According to scientists speaking at the conference session, this type of social isolation and sensory deprivation can have traumatic effects on the brain, many of which may be irreversible. Neuroscientists, lawyers and activists such as King have teamed up with the goal of abolishing solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment.

Most prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement remain there for one to three months, although nearly a quarter spend over a year there; the minimum amount of time is usually 15 days. The most common reasons for being sent to solitary are for preventive measures, which can be indefinite, or for punishment, which is more likely to have a set end point. Several states have passed legislation limiting who can be in solitary confinement, including mentally ill and juvenile offenders, and for how long. The United Nations recommends banning solitary confinement for more than 15 days, saying any longer constitutes torture.

Even in less extreme cases than that of the Angola Three, prolonged social isolation — feeling lonely, not just being alone — can exact severe physical, emotional and cognitive consequences. It is associated with a 26 percent increased risk of premature death, largely stemming from an out of control stress response that results in higher cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and inflammation. Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of suicide. “We see solitary confinement as nothing less than a death penalty by social deprivation,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who was on the panel with King.

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