Solitary confinement can be conceptualized as the segregation of prisoners, especially in maximum-security facilities. The segregation can be carried out as an effort by the prison administrations to control the prisoner. The prisoner is denied interaction with the other inmates, and only the prison’s staff is in contact with them. The duration of the segregation varies, depending on the aims and intentions of the administration in carrying out the procedure. It has been noted that the bottom-line objective of solitary confinement is to achieve control over the prisoner. As such, the victim can go for days on end without interaction with the outside world. Even the prison staff will tend to avoid them.
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It is a fact beyond doubt that this practice has been in existence ever since the incarceration of prisoners started. However, controversies have surrounded the practice ever since. Human rights activists have questioned the long-term effects of this practice on the prisoner. It is argued that solitary confinement has more negative effects on the prisoner than benefits. In this case, the prison administration will argue that the intention of the process was not to benefit the prisoner. This notwithstanding, the negative effects of this practice on the prisoner make it a case of institutionalized abuse of human rights. This is given the fact that the prisoners are still human beings, their status in society notwithstanding. As such, they are not alienated from their basic human rights.
Solitary confinement of prisoners for whatever reasons have, as earlier noted, a number of adverse effects. These are psychological, emotional, physical and social among others. These effects are a result of the unique nature of the conditions that are associated with solitary confinement. These include the deprivation of sensory stimulation on the part of the prisoner among others. The controversial nature of this practice has led to a number of policy implications. This is because a number of changes had to be carried out on the policies that are adopted by the prisons. This includes the reduction of the maximum duration that a prisoner can be isolated from the others and the improvement of the conditions under which the prisoner is to be held in isolation.
Despite these changes, the negative effects of this practice still persist.
Objectives of the Study
The major objective of this study is to examine the adverse effects of solitary confinement. To achieve this, the writer will be guided by a number of specific objectives. It is by addressing these specific objectives that the writer would have effectively addressed the major objective as a result. These specific objectives are as listed below:
- psychological effects of solitary confinement
- emotional effects of solitary confinement
- physical effects of solitary confinement
- social effects of solitary confinement
- causes of problems in solitary confinement
- policy implications of solitary confinement
Adverse Effects of Solitary Confinement
Arrigo and Bullock are of the view that the American public has become very fearful of crime and of criminals in recent years (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008: 2). This has made it necessary for the legislators to advocate for harsher treatment of crime and criminals. Harsh crime control policies have attained unprecedented popularity. Secure housing units, also referred to as supermaximum custody units have emerged as one of the favored modes of dealing with these criminals. Short-term and long-term segregation of prisoners have also become widespread (Keim, 2009: 1). As a result of this, the limitations that have been placed on the freedom of these prisoners have raised some human rights concerns. Many effects that this process has on the prisoners have been cited, and volumes of studies have been conducted to prove this.
Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement
A point to note at this juncture is the fact that when prisoners are in isolation, they are not allowed any visitors. As a result, they are completely cut-out from the rest of society for the duration of the isolation. When they have to talk with people from the outside world, this is usually carried out via closed-circuit television (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008: 5). Apart from being isolated, the prisoners are also denied such beneficial activities as exercise, dining, and other congregate activities. They are also not allowed to access their personal belongings and reading materials.
The psychological effects of this form of confinement, according to Grassian (2006), depending on the duration that the prisoner had been isolated from the outside world. The effects especially emanating from the efforts of the prisoner to adjust to the sensory deprivation that marks this isolation (Perkinson, 2006: 23). This, according to Haney (2003), is more prevalent in prisoners who have been isolated for a long time. For the duration of isolation, there is virtually no mental stimulation or activity on the part of the prisoner (Pizarro, Stenius & Pratt, 2006: 3).
The conditions under which the prisoners are isolated can only be described as rigid (Haney, 2008: 4). As such, there is no opportunity for the prisoner to “engage in social reality testing” (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008: 7). This is significant, given the fact that humans are social in nature, and the prisoner is a human being, regardless of the crime that they have committed. To test and validate our perceptions of our surroundings, we rely to no small extent on the social contact that we have with fellow human beings (Hutchinson, 2006: 8).
It is thus easier to comprehend the reason why the prisoner is affected psychologically as a result of isolation. The total lack of social interaction makes it really hard for the human being to differentiate reality from fantasy or that which is external to us and what is internal (Kupers, 2008: 7). This fact is vividly captured by Haney when he says that “social connectedness and support are the prerequisites to long-term social adjustment” (Haney, 2003: 7). This is the reason why social context is important for any human to function socially and psychologically.
Rationality can be described as one of the attributes that define our personality and human nature. This is the ability of the individual to make a choice between what is wrong and what is right, evil and good. This ability can be conceptualized as been psychological in nature. This is another attribute that the prisoner, by virtue of their been isolated, are deprived of. They become malleable and “unnaturally sensitive” (BryTee, 2007: 7). They are also easily influenced by those people who are around them, and who are seeking to control them. For example, they are easily influenced by the wardens who are in contact, albeit limited, with them.
Humans are tuned psychologically to crave social contact with other people in society (Pizarro & Narag, 2008: 45). This is an effort to state the psychological needs in humans for social contact. However, this need appears to be suppressed to a larger extent in prisoners that have been isolated for a considerable duration of time. The individuals become withdrawn, or as Frintner (2005) puts it, they turn into introverts. People who have been outgoing become withdrawn all of a sudden. The prisoner no longer craves for social contact; rather, they grow to fear and avoid when possible.
Depression and anxiety are other effects that are wrought on the prisoner as a result of been isolated from the rest of the society. Naturally, humans are prone to depression and anxiety were given the nature of the environment within which we live. However, our interaction with other people in society acts as a psychological diversion. As such, most of the anxieties are rarely actualized. However, this is not the case with isolated prisoners. The lack of interaction means that there is a lack of psychological and mental diversion. They have all the time to worry about issues, and as a result, they are depressed and anxious.
Prisoners who are in isolation are at greater risk of developing mental illnesses (Mears & Reisig, 2006: 23). A case in point is a psychopathological condition that was first described by Grassian after conducting a study on prisoners who have been isolated in American prisons. He referred to the condition as Security Housing Unit syndrome (Haney, 2003: 38). A prisoner suffering from this condition experiences difficulties in articulating their thoughts, memory and other psychological, mental and cognitive capabilities.
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Emotional Effects of Solitary Confinement
It has been noted that prisoners held in confinement experience a wide range of emotional effects. In most cases, they have been known to lose control of their emotions, and this is more often than not misinterpreted by the prison administration as further justification for isolation. For example, when a prisoner becomes violent, this is translated as lack of compliance by the authorities, and the prisoner is regarded as a threat to the rest of the prison community. The only way to deal with this threat is to confine the prisoner and isolate them from the others (Kerness, 2008: 1).
According to Haney, isolated prisoners exhibit feelings of anger and frustrations (Haney, 2008: 46). They also tend to experience episodes of rage, which can be violent sometimes, necessitating further isolation by the authorities. However, Haney cautions that the violent behavior is a reaction to their incarceration, and should not be used as a justification for further isolation (Haney, 2003: 45). Due to the lengthy period of their isolation, these people are unable to control their emotions, and that is the reason why they are unable to relate effectively with the other people in the community.
The prisoner becomes easily irritable, and this is evidenced by the tendency that they exhibit of picking fights with their fellow prisoners, and their generally feral disposition. This can be attributed to the fact that, when they are in isolation, the senses of the victims are dulled by the lack of stimulation. As such, when they are released, the senses are destabilized by the sudden influx of stimulus, and as a result, become easily irritated.
The prisoners tend to blame the others for their tribulations after they have been isolated. As a result of this, they are paranoid and will not trust the other people in the society. They will tend to withdraw emotionally and explode violently when they perceive that the others are provoking them.
It has been noted that the prison authorities, or the other people who are in contact with the prisoners when they are in isolation, try to influence the emotionality of the prisoners to their advantage or just for fun (Rogers, 1993: 89). The wardens deprive them of food, or punish them unnecessarily. The prisoners become angry but they lack the channels to vent their anger. The anger and other emotions are pent-up, and they are violently released when the prisoner is released from isolation.
Grassian (2006) is of the view that the personality of the individual greatly determines their emotional reaction to solitary confinement. If the person is of revengeful disposition, they will tend to be angry at the prison authorities for isolating them. However, given that they are powerless and cannot hit back on the authorities, they will project their frustrations on their fellow prisoners, treating them with violence and cruelty.
Physical Effects of Solitary Confinement
Adverse effects that solitary confinement has on the physicality of the prisoner are perhaps one of the lesser known of them all. According to Schwartz (2005), ignoring these effects is like assuming that diet has no effect on the health of the consumer (37). The effects, albeit subtle to a larger extent, cannot be downplayed.
The nature of solitary confinement makes it impossible for the prisoner to exercise. Keim is of the view that some solitary confinement rooms are so tiny such that it is even impossible for the prisoner to sit down while stretching their legs straight (Keim, 2009: 1). They have to spend their time in confinement alternating between standing and sitting down in a “crouching position” (Smith, 2008: 5). The only source of physical activity in such conditions is pacing around the cell like a caged animal, which is more or less what the prisoner have been reduced to.
The lack of exercise means that the muscles of the prisoner are inactive. Blood circulation is impaired with. Muscle cramps are a constant companion of the prisoner. The limbs and joints of the individual lack flexibility due to prolonged immobility.
Solitary confinement has been associated with other punitive forms of treatment such as starvation and flogging (Cohen, 2008: 3). The meals of the prisoner are reduced both in quality and quantity. This leads to malnourishment, as the nutritional needs of the individual are rarely met. Malnourishment acts as an opening for other opportunistic illnesses which plague the individual. This is because their immunity system is greatly impaired. Conditions such as skin diseases affect the individual.
There have been cases of prisoners held in chains as they are segregated from the others. Other cruel forms of treatment include flogging, as earlier indicated, cooling the cell to freezing temperatures among others. All of these increase the likelihood of the prisoner incurring body injuries. They are afflicted by open sores which may become infected leading to further health complications.
The cells within which the prisoners are held are either dimmed or brightly lit. In either case, the lighting is beyond that which can be comfortably tolerated by the human eye. This stimulates the sense of sight of the prisoner either too much (when the lighting is bright) or too little (when the lighting is low or deem). In a nutshell, the sight of the person is affected. When they emerge from the cells, they find it hard to adapt to the natural lighting which they have not been accustomed to.
The hygiene of the cells within which the inmates are isolated is of low standards in most cases. They are rarely cleaned, and the beddings, where provided, are likely to be full of blood sucking vermin (Suedfeld, 2007: 45). There are cases where the prisoners relieve themselves on buckets that are placed in their cells. All these conditions have an accumulative effect of increasing the likelihood of the inmate contracting diseases. Some of the conditions are highly contagious, for example skin diseases (Zinger, 2009: 3).
All the above conditions point to the fact that the health of the prisoner is compromised when they are isolated. The interplay between the psychological impacts of the isolation-for example depression and anxiety-and the prevailing conditions like starvation and flogging, conspire to further put the health of the prisoner in jeopardy.
Social Effects of Solitary Confinement
When the prisoner is isolated, they lose their social control to the administration. This is because the authorities take total control of their lives, including their social life. They are the ones who determine when the prisoner will interact with other people, when to interact and the direction that will be taken by this interaction (Friedman, 2008: 56).
The interplay between the above fact and the social isolation that the prisoners are accustomed to makes them socially incompetent. They find it difficult to initiate a conversation, or to carry on one that has been initiated for them. This makes it really hard for them to interact socially with others. Their emotional turbulence and violent disposition makes the other people avoid them, further isolating them socially.
Causes of Problems in Solitary Confinement
As earlier stated, the unique conditions under which the prisoners are isolated are the major causes of the problems associated with this practice. The psychological conditions emanate from the efforts of the prisoner to adjust to the solitary conditions that they find themselves in. the loneliness and lack of sensual stimulation further aggravates the mental health of the prisoner. This is marked by depression, anxiety and other such mental conditions (Wichmann, 2003: 67).
The social effects are brought about by the social isolation that the prisoner is subjected to. In the duration that they are in isolation, the prisoner has little or no social contact (Ramirez, 2002: 59). Their social life of the prisoner is controlled and curtailed by the authorities.
The health and physical effects are brought about by the deplorable conditions under which the prisoners live during their time of isolation. Poor quality and quantity of food leads to malnourishment and in extension, other forms of illnesses due to impaired immunity (Gawande, 2009: 1). On the other hand, the emotional effects of solitary confinement are due to the destabilization of the emotions of the prisoners due to the nature of the conditions under which they are held. Pent up anger and other feelings explode into fits of violence at the slightest provocation.
Policy Implications of the Negative Effects of Solitary Confinement
There is a need by the prison authorities to change the treatment that they mete out on their inmates, especially those that they regard as a threat to the rest of the community and that they feel can only be isolated. Some of the changes include abolishing the solitary confinement treatment as whole. This is given the fact that the effects that this treatment has on the prisoners are more negative than they are positive. The prisoner becomes violent, has their mental health affected and as such, is unable to function as normal human beings (Franklin, 2008: 34).
The abolishment of this practice can be achieved by having the legislators formulate laws that ban the practice. This can be done from a purely human rights front, given that the constitutional rights of the prisoners are abused by the treatment that they receive. Been human beings, the prisoners should have their rights safeguarded, and one way is to enshrine them in legislations.
Alternatively, if the prison authorities feel that solitary confinement can not be done away with, they should improve the conditions under which the prisoners are isolated. One way of doing this is improving the hygiene and quality of food that they are offered. The prison authorities should ensure that the prisoners have access to facilities such as those for physical exercises to make sure that their muscles are not wasted in confinement. This way, the solitary confinement might be more beneficial relative to the results that it currently delivers.
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