Examining Solitary Confinement and Its Effects on Mental Health

Illustration of person shape behind barsBeing alone for a certain amount of time is healthy and encouraged, but we all need human contact on a fairly regular basis. However, some people are forced into a living situation that requires them to forego all communication with humans. This form of punishment is called solitary confinement.

A group of U.S. senators is actually reviewing the practice of solitary confinement to determine if it is a humane practice, needs to be removed completely, or is allowable in certain circumstances, according to an article in The New York Times.

Former inmates have attested to how inhumane they feel solitary confinement is and how it actually can drive people “insane” and worsen mental health and the overall health of inmates. Lawyers and other professionals claim solitary confinement is unconstitutional and is “cruel and unusual punishment” as well, especially for long periods of time (some have been in isolation for over 10 years with only small periods of time with human contact).

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, the assistant majority leader, asked the question of the audience at the hearing, “Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?” Charles Samuels Jr., the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, suggested that in some cases it is necessary for the safety and well-being of others (such as staff and other inmates if certain inmates are overly dangerous), according to the article. However, even Samuels agreed there are some issues associated with long-term solitary confinement, and it is not the first option for prisoners.

So what do mental health experts have to say about solitary confinement? What can isolation for long periods of time really do to the mind?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) stated in a press release that it is taking a position against solitary confinement. In fact, the group suggests that for people with “severe psychiatric symptoms,” putting them into solitary confinement in prison is “akin to pouring gasoline on a fire.”

The group agrees that sometimes isolation is necessary for the safety of all, but other times it is used “inappropriately, for punishment.”

“Prolonged isolation usually intensifies already chronic symptoms,” according to a NAMI press release. “The result is the ‘worsening of psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia, extreme anxiety and depression, increased suicides and suicide attempts, sleep disturbances, hallucinations, and self-mutilation,’” said Ronald Honberg, the NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs, in a press release. This information was given in a testimony statement that was sent to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

James Scully, Jr., the medical director and CEO of the American Psychiatric Association, submitted a statement to the subcommittee, commenting on how harmful solitary confinement can be to people who are already struggling with their mental health.

“Segregation over prolonged periods of time may produce harmful psychological effects,” according to the statement. “These effects may include anxiety, anger, cognitive disturbance, perceptual distortion, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis. For persons with serious mental illness, these effects may exacerbate underlying psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. Segregated prisoners with serious mental illness often require costly psychiatric hospitalization or crisis intervention services, and generally face bleak prospects of any medical improvement.”

Viola Drancoli, a clinical psychologist, said in an email that the harmful effects of solitary confinement depend on the length of time people are isolated.

“Most extreme situations such as overcrowding or isolation can be harmful to our mental health,” Drancoli said. “People with an existing mental disorder are even more vulnerable. The lack of physical space, sunlight, and interaction with other people over an extended period of time can exacerbate and even trigger mood disorders, suicidality, and psychotic symptoms. An increase in mental illness among inmates may adversely affect their reintegration into society. Thus, the impact of solitary confinement becomes an issue on a larger scale.”

She has heard stories from her clients who were incarcerated about the detrimental effects of solitary confinement.

“Clients have described coping mechanisms such as conversing with ‘imaginary friends’ in order to deal with the isolation,” Drancoli said. “Later they may experience psychotic symptoms, and it becomes harder to distinguish between reality and imagination. The individual feels more humiliated, anxious, and threatened.”

She said that perhaps for shorter periods of time, solitary confinement can be acceptable, but it depends on the situation. “It may be temporarily beneficial for someone who is overwhelmed by a crowded prison yard and needs containment, or experiences an immediate threat due to gang affiliation,” Drancoli said. “But solitary confinement is not the long-term answer to those problems. It should never be implemented over extended periods of time.”

She suggests more of an emphasis is put on treating mental illnesses to help the overall situation of incarceration and solitary confinement. “Often people are incarcerated as a result of their untreated mental illness,” Drancoli said. “Inmates need to be continuously screened throughout their time in prison and then receive appropriate mental health services.”

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  • bonner

    June 25th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Yeah solitary confinement is an extreme form of punishment, I’ll give you that.
    But what other language are these guys going to respomd to?
    This teaches them a lesson that they may not want to repeat anytime soon.

  • kathlea7

    March 6th, 2017 at 9:45 PM

    My daughter is in confinement for 16 days and very concerned on her mental state. She is not a violent or aggressive person at all but was on medication and got a DUI. Very concerned and do not know where to turn.


    June 26th, 2012 at 12:07 AM

    Solidary confinement sounds cruel, even for criminals.Inagine stay in a prison cell alone 24X7 with no outlet and nobody to talk to!Thats horrible.

    And if you’re thinking it shoul be used only for hardcore criminal then just stop for a moment and think about this-Would you rather have them develop issues due to the same an then be released from prison?!

  • Jackson Y

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    Solitary confinement for me would be the worst punishment ever! I am a person who needs other adult conversation and stimulation and I think that this kind of punishment alone would be enough at times to drive me med. You have to consider that the inmates facing this kind of punishment are seeking interaction with others as well, so when they are forced to face this sort of punishment that will only make any other anxiety and stress related disorders that they have be even worse. You would think that as long as our penal system has been in place that the powers that be could have discovered other effective forms of punishment that would get the point across but not be so harmful to the inmates psyche. These are people that I thought we would want to reintegrate back into society at some point healthier that they were when they began their sentences but imposing this kind of treatment on them while they are incarcerated does nothing to help achieve that goal.

  • nanett

    June 26th, 2012 at 3:42 PM

    This is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment

  • Boomer

    June 27th, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    hey I get it that some of you think this is such an awful thing. But what have they done to get there? If you are a model prisoner and do your time, then you don’t get thrown into solitary for no reason at all. If you are in jail and you behave, then hey, you get to practically do your time in leisure. So maybe that’s something these inmates need to think about. Do the crime, gotta do the time.

  • cameron

    September 16th, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    This comment is for Boomer. You must be perfect huh? What did they do to get into confinement? Really? There are all kinds of things that can put an inmate in solitary. Forgetting a lunch tray, getting up late for your job(maybe you are sick or can’t sleep) or any number of reasons. And then once you are in there it makes you go crazy(er). Try something for all of us readers….put yourself in a closet for 7 days with no human contact and see if you can handle it. Maybe, just maybe you would start to feel the effects despite you being perfect. Maybe not. Either way, close minded people like you piss me off. Solitary should be a case by case basis. Of course if an inmate stabs people regularly should be there. But what about the Guy who didn’t wake up on time for his job? Does he deserve 2 weeks in the hole? And then what about when he is there? You know you get nothing in confinement except your mail right? So that man who didn’t do anything to deserve solitary gets bores and angry and acts out for attention and then gets more time in the hole. I think you should do a little research before you go and flap your neck and say something pole “what did they do to get in solitary confinement. You can’t say a word about this matter unless you have been there. I have. And I have adhd. That makes it impossible to do time in the hole. You act out for human contact or even a book to read. And that earns you more time. But its not like we (adhd sufferers) can control that. Could a diabetic just not take insulin and be ok? Could a mechanic do his job without his wrenches? Could a truck driver do his job with no tires? No. Again, do a little research before you go and say something ignorant like that.

  • Cat hagan

    February 17th, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    You are absolutely right, Cameron!!

  • Jan p.

    November 26th, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    The reasons you have stated that get you in to solitary simply are not true! If you do your time and dont cause trouble, you are not going to see the hole! I just finished 14 years in prison and you dont get thrown in the hole for reasons that you shared! Blessings

  • Jason

    February 22nd, 2019 at 11:12 AM

    I definitely agree with you..i was unfortunately in solitary confinement for a combination of close to 5 years for being allegedly involved with criminal activity which was never confirmed.i know i have issues which brought me to this website so can seek help.ive been around alot of inmates who couldnt endure a few days in solitary and commited suicide.yes its cruel and unusual punishment.now im out after spending a total of 18 years in prison for a crime of trying to defend myself which resulted in somebody life to be taken.i been convicted and did my time, now realizing the consequences of growing up behind bars with no mental help for adjusting to this world.therefore i truly believe despite how many good people being incarcerated,no inmate should ever be subjected to solitary confinement unless FACTS CLEARLY STATE REASONS FOR CONFINEMENT..IM A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF STRUGGLING TO HOLD ON TO MY MARRIAGE AND FAMILY DUE TO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT.

  • Christina

    February 11th, 2016 at 7:40 PM

    I was arrested and put into what amounted to solitary confinement for a month while I waited on a court date in a tiny town in the country – passing through – I was stopped at an illegal roadblock. Solitary because I was the only female in the small town jail and the cell they put me in was a cell within a cell – ADX type. I was fed twice a day that was the only person I saw was the staff 2x a day for 1 minute. I also was not allowed outdoors at all for that month and there was no window/could see no sky. It rained really hard one time and being able to hear the rain outside really affected me and made me cry. I also broke into tears when they finally let me go into the “yard” after a month and I saw sun and felt and smelled fresh air. There was no TV or reading material except for the bible so I spent the first 2 weeks reading the bible and praying but then after about 2 weeks I believed God was communicating back to me through my thoughts and then through making my head shake and nod. When I asked if it was God he/it shook my head no and when I asked if it was Jesus it shook my head yes. I got really excited and thought Jesus was communicating directly to me and so I started a relationship and began communicating alot this way. But then things turned extremely dark and I began to receive or get disturbing visions and nightmares. I would try to stay awake at night I was so frightened of the nightmares and the mental attacks. It dawned on me that Jesus would not do this to me and so one day I asked if this was really Jesus and for the first time, I received no answer. I immediately stopped talking to it and then believed I had become demon possessed. I prayed like crazy just as I had from the beginning of my being there and also tried to exorcise myself and my cell. Nothing worked and I continued to see the visions and have my body and mind taken over and I could see clear-looking round or bug-like entities in my cell terrorizing me. I saw dark shadows and neon blue twinkles of light as well and no matter how much I prayed, these things would not go away until weeks later. When after a month some other women were brought in together on drug charges, the symptoms finally diminished. i’ve never had schzophrenia or any other mental disease but being in that jail by myself that way with no human contact or sunlight/fresh air damaged my mind in such a way that I’m still haunted by this going on 2 years later and my spiritual beliefs have needless to say gotten much more unsure. I’ll never be the same and I wish I could sue but I don’t think that would make any difference. But that is my story. Stay on the interstate when you go cross country through south Georgia.

  • kathlea7

    March 6th, 2017 at 9:55 PM

    My daughter got a DUI – she was on antibiotics for a infection – she had a couple of drinks in town and realized something was not right while driving, then took a nap in her car at a business parking lot. She got arrested for a DUI because she had the keys in her pocket and not outside of her car. She is in solitary confinement for 16 days. My daughter is a light weight and also never speaks up for herself and not at all aggressive. She talked to me about the loneliness and I am worried about her state of mind. The jail will not tell me anything, so I am talking to a lawyer tomorrow.

  • Johnah

    June 26th, 2019 at 3:14 AM

    My fioncee is in solitary confinement for 6-8 months. He also did a 5 year term in the SHU at Pelican Bay. It is cruel and inhumane, to be locked up like that and you do not have to be found guilty of what you are bein accussed of. They put them in there and “investagate”.. or say they are.There is no due process of law. No proof of guilt one way or the other. They do it to “break” men into ratting on their comrads which will result in their demise. And then now??? They do away with the PC status promised and jepordize the life of the inmate and their family’s. No the inmates should not be allowed to do whatever they want but, its not fair the procedure. It is cruel… It took me months when i met him to touch him physically. He got way better very slowly and then put him in there and now i start all over. He is damaged from it daily.

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