How Solitary Confinement Alters The Brain

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In the 20th century prisoners were put in solitary confinement for a couple of days or weeks, but now that has changed. They can be put in solitary confinement for years on end. Prison guards express this form of punishment as “the hole” or “the prison within a prison”, but what is Solitary Confinement? According to the legal dictionary, it is, “The placement of a prisoner in a Federal or state prison, away from other prisoners, usually as a form of internal penal discipline, but occasionally to protect the convict from other prisoners or to prevent the prisoner from causing trouble.” Inmates are put in a cell that approximately measures from 6 x 9 to 8 x 10 feet and stay there for 23 hours a day, only given 1 hour to exercise with limited human contact. The convicts are denied work or cannot attend prison programming, and may not be allowed to have television, radio, art supplies, and even reading materials in their cells. Many argue that these individuals are terrible people who deserve to be confined, in these horrifying conditions. Others argue that this form of torture causes devastating psychological effects on prisoners.


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Neuroscientists have discovered evidence that long-term isolation has the potential to actually alter the chemistry and structure of the brain. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist of the University of Michigan, studies the impact of isolation, but cannot study this directly because no U.S. prison will allow isolated prisoners to take part in research. Huda uses basic findings on how stimulation and social interaction affect the brain to infer the potential impacts of isolation. Much of the brain activity is controlled by the circadian rhythms, which are physical, mental and behavioral changes to light and darkness in the environment within a 24 hour period. The autopsies of people who committed suicide after suffering from depression, show that the gene expression of their brain is less aligned to the circadian rhythm. This occurs because isolated prisoners rarely see the sun or have a limited exposure to it. The hippocampus region of the brain has been found to shrink in people who are depressed or stressed for extended periods. The hippocampus is involved in memory, geographic orientation and decision-making. An example of this is Robert King, who was held in solitary confinement for years before his conviction was overturned in a racially charged murder case. His eyesight and physical orientation are permanently impaired. He said:

“My geography is way off and I get lost sometimes in my own neighborhood. I believe that this is a result of my solitary confinement.”

Researchers at the AAAS’s (American Association for the Advancement of Science) annual meeting said solitary confinement appears to fundamentally alter the brain and induce numerous psychological effects. In that meeting Craig Haney shared the cases he has documented on the psychological effects of solitary confinement at the University of California Santa Cruz. Haney has inspected solitary confinement across the U.S. There have been cases of paranoia, self-harm, hypersensitivity to sound, light and touch, and severe cognition dysfunction among the isolated prisoners. Haney said:

“You find that prisoners begin to develop identity disorders when they have spent long periods of time without social interaction or touch”.


“So much of who we are depends on our contact with other people, the social context in which we function, and when you remove people from that context, they begin to lose their very sense of self.”

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In 2011 The United Nations issued a report claiming that long-term solitary isolation is a form of torture in supermax prisons. In my opinion solitary confinement fails as a measure to rehabilitate, and control problematic prisoners. This method causes prisoners to lose their ability to control their emotions, their sense of self is lost and their geographic navigational abilities are impaired. Solitary confinement puts prisoners at a high risk of descending into irreversible mental illnesses. Once these prisoners are released back into society, they will have extreme difficulties adjusting to life outside of prison. Many will have a hard time socializing with others, and will have emotional outbursts. Making solitary confinement an unsuccessful method to correct the prisoner before being released. What are your opinions of solitary confinement? Do you agree on this method of punishment? Leave your comment on the bottom of this page.



George Dvorsky. (2014). Why Solitary Confinement Is The Worst Kind Of Psychological Torture.

Joseph Stromberg. (2014). The Science of Solitary Confinement.

Kirsten Weir. (2012). Alone, in ‘the hole’.

Legal Dictionary. (2015). solitary confinement.

Nadia Ramlagan. (2014). Solitary Confinement Fundamentally Alters the Brain, Scientists Say.

Nicole Flatow. (2014). Solitary Confinement May Dramatically Alter Brain Shape In Just Days, Neuroscientist Says.

Sal Rodrigues. (2012). FAQ.

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