Solitary confinement is often described as a form of torture. As Molly Crabapple at Fusion recently explained, sometimes prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement for months and years, even though a UN report concluded more than 15 days of solitary confinement is torture.
Solitary confinement involves putting someone in a cell for days, weeks, months, or even years with little-to-no contact with others. It is often used to discipline wrongdoers in prisons, but it's also deployed to protect inmates from others and segregate groups of people who are causing trouble. Around the country, it is used even to contain juvenile inmates in both youth detention centers and adult prisons.
A large body of research shows that solitary confinement can worsen mental illness and cause it in some circumstances, particularly among younger people whose brains are still developing. Symptoms include hypersensitivity to stimuli, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, anxiety, revenge fantasies, rage, appetite and weight loss, heart palpitations, headaches, problems sleeping, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts, and, in rare situations, lower levels of brain activity.
Some of the research goes back to the 19th century. The early research about the health effects was so convincing that the US Supreme Court confidently stated in 1890 that solitary confinement is not "a mere unimportant regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner." The court concluded that solitary confinement caused prisoners to go "into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community."
These detrimental effects extend to people who are in solitary confinement at no fault of their own. In adult prisons, juvenile and transgender inmates are often put in isolation for their own protection against older or bigoted prisoners. Sometimes, certain tattoos can get a person thrown in solitary confinement, because the body art is often associated with gang affiliation.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other reform advocates say it's time to acknowledge this research and stop the widespread use of solitary confinement. "We have to use data and science in our criminal justice system," Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project, recently said, "in the same way that we do in many other aspects of public policy."
Further reading: Solitary confinement is terrible — and some places are trying to get rid of it.