Solitary confinement is torture: psych expert

Wired Science interviews UCSC's Craig Haney, a psychologist who's an expert on long-term solitary confinement, and concludes that solitary confinement is unequivocally torture. It makes people go insane. And 25,000 Americans are in long-term solitary in the US penal system.
First let me note that solitary confinement has historically been a part of torture protocols. It was well-documented in South Africa. It's been used to torture prisoners of war.

There are a couple reasons why solitary confinement is typically used. One is that it's a very painful experience. People experience isolation panic. They have a difficult time psychologically coping with the experience of being completely alone.

In addition, solitary confinement imposes conditions of social and perceptual stimulus deprivation. Often it's the deprivation of activity, the deprivation of cognitive stimulation, that some people find to be painful and frightening.

Some of them lose their grasp of their identity. Who we are, and how we function in the world around us, is very much nested in our relation to other people. Over a long period of time, solitary confinement undermines one's sense of self. It undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion. The appropriateness of what you're thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we're so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.

That leads to the other reason why solitary is so often a part of torture protocols. When people's sense of themselves is placed in jeopardy, they are more malleable and easily manipulated. In a certain sense, solitary confinement is thought to enhance the effectiveness of other torture techniques.

Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture


  1. Ridiculous. The U.S. does not torture, and the U.S. has tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement. Ergo: solitary confinement is not torture.

    Learn to debate the NeoConâ„¢ way!

  2. Solitary confinement probably sucks…a lot, and I don’t argue with much of what is said about the psychological effects of being alone.

    But in this current discussion of using torture techniques like waterboarding, walling and the insect thing…solitary confinement isn’t exactly “torture”.

    A lot of the mental effects can be said about just imprisoning someone. Not letting people go where they want can cause some sever mental effects, but we are still going to imprison criminals and suspected terrorists.

    Its just not the same as putting someone to the rack.

    1. Its just not the same as putting someone to the rack.

      I, for one, reject that as a baseline for deciding what constitutes torture.

  3. As a former juvenile delinquent, I have been placed in a drunk-tank a couple of times.
    It’s not so bad, you’re only there for one night, you’re sedated (otherwise you wouldn’t be in the drunk-tank) and you know they’ll let you out when you wake up and sober up.

    But even so, I was pretty freaked out.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to do it sober, for an extended and/or indeterminate period of time.

  4. “Often it’s the deprivation of activity, the deprivation of cognitive stimulation, that some people find to be painful and frightening.”

    Tell me about it. I’ve been in many office meetings that dragged on endlessly without a hint of activity or cognitive stimulation.

    Was my experience “painful and frightening?” Deeply. I’m still scarred. In discussing a dreaded upcoming meeting, the phrase “I’d rather be waterboarded” was often used.

    I wonder if I can have my superiors brought up on war crimes charges for making me attend…

    – David Stein

  5. There’s an interesting NYT article from a few years back (“Is Solitary Confinement Driving Charlie Crazy?” I believe is the title). The story brings up a lot of interesting points about why solitary confinement is not only dangerous for the inmates themselves (they tend to be much more reckless about their own safety–anything to get out of the cell, even chopping their veins with fingernail clippers), but it also is a hazard for the general public once they are released. Inmates often receive solitary confinement as a result of breaking laws in prison, but these infractions do not result in added time to the sentence. For example–say someone has a 15 year sentence; that person can be released after the 15 years are up from solitary confinement straight into society.

    Prisoners already have a high difficulty assimilating back into society, but just imagine!

    This is the classic Catch-22. We don’t want unusually dangerous inmates mixed in with the general prison population, but keeping them confined only renders them more dangerous.

    No one ever said the justice system was perfect.

  6. @#5 Who deserves to be tortured?

    We lock people in jail because it is the best option for dealing with people who have broken society’s laws in a civilized manner. It punishes criminals without demeaning or endangering ourselves (at least not as much as other methods). It also respects the fact that we know that our justice system is imperfect.

    It is easy to say that what happens to a criminal behind bars has no bearing on your world, but that would be mistaken. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, pal.

  7. Sorry, #5, the moderator deleted the post that was originally numbered 5 while I was composing my response.

  8. While I agree that involuntary solitary confinement can certainly be considered torture, and that it can have devastating effects. I would like to point out that some people do such things on purpose — to get rid of their sense of self as part of becoming enlightened. I guess it’s one of those things that can make or break you. And having no choice in the matter and not knowing what you should do in such a situation seems much more likely to put you in the broken camp.

  9. Prison-Ashram Project

    “Ashram” is a Sanskrit word meaning “House of God.” In the East, an ashram is a place where people live for some period of time in order to strengthen their spiritual practice and self-discipline. Many ashrams are very strict. Residents, or ashramites, abide by an exhaustive schedule and live very simply, without many comforts or luxuries.

    1. “Ashram” is a Sanskrit word meaning “House of God.”

      Actually it either means “toward austerity” or “absence of struggle” depending on how you interpret the first letter.

  10. Unfortunately, people can also require solitary confinement for their own protection (or at least that’s the rationale for their confinement). If the prisoner is considered to be at risk if placed with other offenders (due to the nature of their charge or whether they were police officers at one time, etc). Mentally ill prisoners usually wind up in solitary for that same reason (which usually makes their mental illness worse). The use of solitary confinement and it’s impact on a prisoner’s mental status can be profound. The damage is often irreversible.

  11. I work in a correctional facility and have for the past 9 years, I feel honestly that wether cruel or not many times these inmates/offenders bring it upon themselves. Everyone has a chance at general pop, their behavior warrants the level of security at witch they are placed.
    Just because these people are “behind bars” does not give them the rights to act like animals. Animals that cant be controled even in wild are at times shot. they all have rules and must be governed accordingly.

  12. I’ve never been in prison but when I see stuff on TV about prison, I wonder if I wouldn’t prefer the painful isolation of solitary confinement over the danger and fear that comes with being in the general population. I guess I can’t know for sure.

  13. Solitary confinement is often used for the protection of others. Texas used to let death row prisoners work and recreate together, until some of those inmates killed other inmates so that they could have their executions postponed for the new murder trial. Some inmates will simply not stop violent behavior no matter what. This is not to excuse abuses of solitary confinement, but there are plenty of valid reasons to use it.

  14. clearly, this dude has never seen “the great escape.” steve f’in’ mcqueen didn’t seem to have a problem with solitary!

  15. @2 : (sorry, I forgot how to make the giant red quotes)

    “But in this current discussion of using torture techniques like waterboarding, walling and the insect thing…solitary confinement isn’t exactly “torture”.”

    I’m tired of euphemisms. Waterboarding, walling, the insect thing? Let’s call them what they are : drowning, slamming people’s heads into walls, and locking children in boxes with scorpions while their parents watch.

    “… but we are still going to imprison criminals and suspected terrorists.”

    Why would we continue to imprison suspected terrorists? I thought the thing we traditionally do with suspects is to bring them to trial.

  16. I can’t help but think that solitary confinement is something that would affect different kinds of people very differently. The histrionic would probably break down immediately, the autistic probably wouldn’t even notice, etc. I’ve been in situtations where I had no human interaction for up to a week, and I wasn’t bothered by it (I’m not autistic or anything, either), but I know lots of people couldn’t stand it. Then again, I wasn’t trapped in a featureless cell with nothing to do, and a week is a lot different than months or years, so what do I know?

  17. Nanuq@11:

    If the prisoner is considered to be at risk if placed with other offenders (due to the nature of their charge or whether they were police officers at one time, etc). Mentally ill prisoners usually wind up in solitary for that same reason (which usually makes their mental illness worse).

    Trans people who have been placed in prisons at odds with their lived gender (extremely common) are usually put in solitary for similar stated reasons.

  18. this is a great article from a recent new yorker.

    After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.
    a snippet…
    “One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it. After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic attack.”

  19. @jimp

    That’s why the International Red Cross has a definition of torture, and is responsible for overseeing the Geneva Convention.

    And according to the IRC: Yes, the US tortures.

  20. I’m relieved to see the discussion on torture begin to include the less publicized practices that go on in US prisons every day. Way to go Prof. Haney!

    Though things like solitary confinement (and mandatory minimums and 3 Strikes laws to toss in a couple more) may lack the lurid appeal of headlines on torture, they seem to me even more worthy of our outrage and activism.

    On a semi-related note, I happen to be reading a story set in a pediatric oncology ward. Waterboarding, watching your kid succumb to cancer. They’re both torture, right? So… if we call it torture, do you think the media will give it a little more attention and focus its investigative powers on rooting out the corporations that poison our air, water, soil… cells? Please?

  21. I think the sickos who say it’s not torture are anti-social weirdos who should be put in solitary for the safety of my person and my nation. For actual humans, it would be torture, but they say it isn’t so I say let’em have it.

    Hasn’t anyone here ever watched a damn war movie? Of course it’s torture.

  22. Gadgets123 @ 21 – Waterboarding is definitely torture and has long been considered a war crime.
    See Waterboarding is Illegal by Professor Wilson R. Huhn of the University of Akron School of Law, who notes:

    “After World War II, the United States prosecuted and convicted a number of Japanese officers for torturing captured American servicemen by waterboarding. Great Britain prosecuted another group of Japanese officers who had tortured British soldiers using this technique, and sentenced them to death. Over a century ago, the United States prosecuted and convicted American military officers who used waterboarding against prisoners in the Philippines.”

    As for journalists trying it for themselves, this quote from Wikipedia is instructive:
    “In May 2008 the journalist Christopher Hitchens voluntarily experienced waterboarding. He managed to resist for twelve seconds the first time, and, embarrassed at his poor performance, he asked to try again. He then managed to resist for 19 seconds. He later told the BBC: ‘There is a common misconception that waterboarding simulates the sensation of drowning, but you are to all intents and purposes actually drowning’. He said that although he was somewhat prepared for his ordeal, he had not been prepared for what came later: ‘I have been waking up with sensations of being smothered’.[43] Hitchens concluded, ‘if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture. Believe me. It’s torture’.”

    Also very few US soldiers have undergone waterboarding – only special forces, high-value personnel and aircrews at high risk of capture and prolonged interrogation do the higher-level SERE training that involves waterboarding. The value of such preparation is questionable since almost no one can stick to “name, rank, and serial number” when being waterboarded – after a certain rapidly reached point, the only priority in the victims mind, no matter how well or brutally trained, is trying to come up with whatever the torturer wants to hear make him stop. Having it done once as training, although brutal and ineffective may fall a just short of torture to the extent that it is voluntary; having it done repeatedly by hostile captors is much, much worse. No citizen of the US or anywhere else should be doing such things to anyone, whether friend, foe, suspect, civilian or soldier.

  23. half of US Journalists have done [waterboarding] voluntarily

    OK, then… What was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s safe signal? You know–the sign he could give to have it all stop, so he could chill out, have a burger, and go home to the wife ‘n kids?

  24. Gadgets123, if you want to argue that destroying someone’s mind through psychological pain is different from destroying their mind through physical pain, then a mere lack of a word isn’t stopping you.

    What’s stopping you is that such an argument is ridiculous, but having another word would help you to obscure the facileness of the argument.

  25. Solitary confinement *might* be an appropriate action in regards to someone with zero possibility of parole, but in anyone else it is a recipe for disaster and future crimes.

    I know, as a 14-year-old girl sent to a pseudo-prison for no other reason than unruliness. When my fellow prisoners threatened me, I attempted to leave. For this crime, I was assaulted and subjected to solitary confinement for a week.

    My love for reading notwithstanding, a few dozen books could not compensate for the fact of my detainment. I was a straight-A student, but was not allowed to go to school.

    There is a certain circuit in my brain that snapped that week, I admit it, but this is the mechanism by which I denounce prisons. Understand I was in a relatively compassionate country and underage and had done nothing wrong, yet…!

    On to my co-inmates: teenage girls who desired to be sent to the local jail — to be with their boyfriends or increase their street cred, occasionally beating people up (including me) to achieve that goal.

    Some ‘redeemed’ themselves to their families by ‘producing’, having a baby.

    Torture is always both relative and relevant to the victim, regardless of circumstance. Right, Theresa?

  26. ” They have a difficult time psychologically coping with the experience of being completely alone.”

    We all gotta love this: so … exact.
    In so many words, but.

  27. Go take that up with other signatories to the Geneva Conventions, Gadgets123. Torture is torture is torture: hatefulness extreme. If you’re so serious about “eradicating” (?!?) terrorists, whyn’t use techniques that will actually prevent, not increase, terrorism and anti-US hatred?

  28. @ Gadgets123:

    And I would still argue that what is being called “torture” is little more than fraternity hazing compared to what the enemy is doing.

    This statement sums up a big part of the problem. You and other torture advocates are measuring our actions against those of the terrorists instead of against a higher moral standard. That line of reasoning can be used to justify any atrocity if your enemy (real or perceived) is bad enough.

  29. i think that it is torture. simply because it is isolating a person from humans. i mean, unless they kill just for the sake of murder, by all means, keep them isolated. but to isolate them is just a slow method of deteriorating a human, reducing them to an empty shell. people need human interaction. we are so socially intertwined, it is hard to even spot that we are. even if we are loners, we are still with other people. i get freaked out and start getting a little depressed if i am alone in my house for longer than 12 hours. i start getting paranoid, and i think that there is a serial killer in the bathroom or kitchen. i can not even leave my bedroom, i am so scared! it sounds silly, yet it is true. i believe that, even though it sounds immoral, the death sentence would be better than a lifetime of solitary confinement.

  30. yes this is true because my boyfriend was in solitary confinement for ust 4 days and when we went to visit him the friday he didnt know who i was and he was telling the gaurd thats not my mom my mom is dead and remind you this is someone that i spoke to the tuesday morning houurs before he was sent to solitary confinement…the friday night i called a medical emergency hotline and a doctor evaluated his and saw that e needed medicsl attention the saturday morning he was sent to bellevue… that shit is tortur…..everyone mind is not stong enough and e was only in this cell 3 nights…

Comments are closed.