Should solitary confinement be considered a form of torture?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

To virtually no one's surprise, scientists are increasingly finding that solitary confinement induces a host of psychological and physiological problems in prisoners. The time has come, say a growing number of concerned citizens, to call it for what it really is: Torture.

Top image: Steve McQueen in Papillion (1973)

A pair of recent articles have addressed this issue.

First up is an episode and accompanying article by the outstanding design podcast, 99% Invisible, called "An Architect's Code." The piece describes the work of the group Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) who have taken the stance that there are certain types of buildings and structures that should not be built — designs that violate standards of human rights.


Image: Rendering of Pelican Bay SHU. Each "pod" contains six cells, a shower, and an exercise yard. Credit: Raphael Sperry.


One such violation is the design of solitary confinement cells in prisons. As Roman Mars points out in his article:

Life inside of the SHU at Pelican Bay means 22 to 23 hours a day inside of 7.5 by 12 foot room. It’s not a space that’s designed to keep you comfortable. But it’s not just these architectural features, that concern humanitarian activists and psychiatrists. It’s the amount of time many prisoners spend in that cells, alone, without any meaningful activity. Some psychiatrists, such as Terry Kupers, say there is a whole litany of effects that a SHU can have on a person: massive anxiety, paranoia, depression, concentration and memory problems, and loss of ability to control one’s anger (which can get a prisoner in trouble and lengthen the SHU sentence). In California, SHU inmates are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than other prisoners incarcerated elsewhere in the state. There are even reports of eye damage due to the restriction on distance viewing. Terry Kupers says that a SHU "destroys people as human beings."


I highly, highly recommend that you listen to the entire episode.

The second article comes from Wired's Brandon Keim who writes about "The horrible psychology of solitary confinement." He describes the largest prison protest in California's history in which nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on a hunger strike to protest the state's use of solitary confinement. Some prisoners are held for years or decades with almost no social contact and a minimal amount of sensory stimuli.


Keim writes:

Scientific studies of solitary confinement and its damages have actually come in waves, first emerging in the mid-19th century, when the practice fell from widespread favour in the United States and Europe. More study came in the 1950s, as a response to reports of prisoner isolation and brainwashing during the Korean War. The renewed popularity of solitary confinement in the United States, which dates to the prison overcrowding and rehabilitation program cuts of the 1980s, spurred the most recent research.

Consistent patterns emerge, centering around the aforementioned extreme anxiety, anger, hallucinations, mood swings and flatness, and loss of impulse control. In the absence of stimuli, prisoners may also become hypersensitive to any stimuli at all. Often they obsess uncontrollably, as if their minds didn't belong to them, over tiny details or personal grievances. Panic attacks are routine, as is depression and loss of memory and cognitive function...

...When prisoners leave solitary confinement and re-enter society — something that often happens with no transition period — their symptoms might abate, but they're unable to adjust. "I've called this the decimation of life skills," said Kupers. "It destroys one's capacity to relate socially, to work, to play, to hold a job or enjoy life."


According to Kupers, prisoners in isolation account for just 5% of the total prison population — but nearly half of its suicides.

Be sure to read the entire article.