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Locked in a Box

The practice of solitary confinement in the United States is highly prevalent. There has been controversy about whether this practice is cruel, as prisoners in solitary confinement are psychologically affected. If there are implications that prisoners are subject to psychological trauma, why do prisons continue this practice?


A study conducted by Dr. Benjamin Rush at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary started implementing solitary confinement in prisons. Rush believed prisoners in solitary could reflect on their actions and show remorse. While in solitary, prisoners spent 23 hours alone, without interaction with others. They had a few necessities in their cells, including a toilet, sink, and bed. Guards delivered food to the cell, where they would push the food tray through a small slot in the door. They could only leave their cell and interact with others while being escorted to take a shower, to the infirmary, or court meetings. They also spent minimal time in a small, isolated yard.


The extended period of isolation on a day-to-day basis reveals the dangers and psychological effects solitary confinement has on a person. Several prisoners committed suicide as a result. Despite the study's outcome, the United States continues the practice of solitary confinement.


Craig Haney, Ph.D.- a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the American Psychological Association, addressed the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights regarding the psychological effects caused by solitary confinement. He described how prisoners in solitary often experience rage, fear, insomnia, paranoia, loss of control, emotional breakdowns, depression, psychosis, and related symptoms. 


Professor Haney stated that solitary confinement not only subjects prisoners to psychologically damaging experiences but also does so without providing them with any opportunities to obtain meaningful programming or rehabilitative services.


To improve the psychological well-being of prisoners in solitary confinement, Professor Haney suggests that prisons provide access to mental health care resources, rehabilitative and transitional programs, and encouraging steps to remain out of solitary.

A former inmate, Anthony Graves, exonerated after spending 18.5 years on death row in solitary confinement after being wrongfully convicted in 1994, shared that this was no way to live. "No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being," he stated. “Solitary confinement does one thing; it breaks a man's will to live, and he ends up deteriorating."

Edited by: Hilda Harb

Photo by: The Conversation (Shutterstock)

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