What Happens When You Spend Weeks, Months, or Years in Solitary Confinement

The loneliness and isolation of quarantine is nothing to laugh about, though we might have heard grim jokes about solitary confinement in the last few months. We’ve also seen overwrought comparisons of social distancing to prison. These are, I think, release valves for real pain. One hopes the harrowing experience of the pandemic will give Americans some compassion for the lives of prisoners, a shocking number of whom spend years, even decades, in solitary, mostly deprived of natural light, human contact, entertainment, education, or a change of scenery. It seems, inarguably, like a form of torture.

Unsurprisingly, solitary confinement does real harm to the body and brain. Even inmates placed in solitary for a few days experience symptoms of acute anxiety and depression. “Isolated inmates often report symptoms similar to those of hypertension, such as chronic headaches, trembling sweaty palms, extreme dizziness and heart palpitations,” Mary Murphy Corcoran writes at NYU’s Applied Psychology Opus. “Inmates in isolation may also have difficulty sleeping, and some may experience insomnia…. Consequently, inmates report feelings of chronic lethargy.” Over the years, this stress exacts its long-term toll.




In the Slate video at the top, former inmate Five Mualimm-Ak describes the five years he spent in solitary during a 12-year prison sentence. His account and those of others were recently collected in a book with the grimly evocative title Hell is a Very Small Place. Former solitary inmate Terrence Slater describes a kind of further solitary of the mind: how important it is to limit the amount of time one thinks about loved ones during a 23-hour day alone in a cell, or “you’re going to lose your mind in there.” It’s estimated that roughly 80,000 inmates in the U.S. are placed in such conditions every year.

Given enough time, one may literally lose one’s mind, as Robert King discovered. King was “confined in a 6×9-foot cell for almost 30 years,” Elana Blanco-Suarez writes at Psychology Today. “King knew that solitary confinement was changing the way his brain worked. When he finally left his cell, he realized he had trouble recognizing faces and had to retrain his eyes to learn what a face was like.” He could no longer follow simple directions. “It was as if his brain had erased all those capabilities that were no longer necessary for survival in a cell no bigger than the back of a pick-up truck.”

Prolonged periods of sensory deprivation can be especially injurious for prisoners who go into solitary with pre-existing mental health issues, and “mentally impaired prisoners are disproportionately represented in solitary confinement,” Kirsten Weir notes at the American Psychological Association. One 2005 study found that the “prevalence of mental illness in administrative segregation” in Colorado “was greater than 35 percent, compared with a mental illness rate of less than 25 percent among the general prison population.”

Clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Jeffrey Metzner argues that the “correctional system has become our mental health care system for too many people,” using abusive, barbaric practices that haven’t existed in mental health wards for decades. The effects of solitary confinement suggest that “it doesn’t make facilities safer, doesn’t make our communities safer, and that people are developing mental and physical ailments because of this practice.”

So says James Burns, a formerly incarcerated filmmaker who voluntarily entered solitary confinement for 30 days in 2016 and livestreamed the whole experience. See his last four hours above and read at Vice about his reasons for submitting himself to hell—not a “dark dungeon,” he writes, but “a very sterile, bright hell” which is, “more than anything… a mind fuck.”

Related Content: 

Prisons Around the U.S. Are Banning and Restricting Access to Books

Inmates in New York Prison Defeat Harvard’s Debate Team: A Look Inside the Bard Prison Initiative

Art Class Instead Of Jail: New Program Lets Young Offenders Take Free Art Classes Rather Than Spend Time in the Criminal System

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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  • Jeremy says:

    You get really bored. Only escape is imagination. Time passes by you’ll begin to not care for time itself. This should be a simple outcome. All opportunity cut off. Hope you got a strong willpower. Then you’ll adapt. You will plan every opportunity to make sure escaping is a hundred percent possible. Your basic senses will go into overdrive a simple scent that’s foreign will be like a train. Ect. Vibrations in the air around you. It’ll be suffocating unable to ignore them. Most would turn violent or self harming instead of assessment of the situation to make the best of it entirely. Depending on how long you’ll ignore emotions
    Focus will be entirely on movements interactions it really depends on the person’s personality. The hardest part would be no companionship as a possibility.

  • Jeremy says:

    Just Read the rest 30days is a joke. That’s nothing. Try total isolation no friends family no visitors no one to talk to nothing. Food water shelter. Physical activity is key to survival especially in such a limited space with nothing to drive your adrenaline. Who would willingly do that for 2 years with nothing to look forward to after it’s over just the escape.

  • WW says:

    I enjoyed my time in solitary; I’m my own best company, and it allowed me to think about things in peace! It was the PERFECT opportunity to meditate, and practice mindfulness exercises.

  • ENGLISH EX CON says:

    I AM 43. I AM LONDON BORN & BRED. I HAVE BEEN BEING LOCKED UP SINCE AGE 15.
    SECURE UNITS, YOUNG OFFENDERS & LOTS OF JAILS.OVER 30 ESTABLISHMENTS. I HAVE SERVED 17 YRS ALL IN ALL. I WAS A REAL LIVEWIRE. I WENT AGAINST THE SYSTEM AT EVERY TWIST & TURN. GUYS FROM MY AREA WITH A VERY HIGH CRIME RATE SAW IT AS A BADGE OF HONOUR NOT JUST TO GET LOCKED UP BUT TO BE AS DISRUPTIVE AS POSSIBLE IN THE SYSTEM WHILE HELD IN CUSTODY.ATTACKING OTHER INMATES & SCREWS (GUARDS), DRUG DEALING, HOOCH, EXTORTION.
    AS A RESULT I WOULD SPEND LONG PERIODS OF TIME IN ISOLATION, THE LONGEST 17 MONTHS, I WAS RELEASED BACK INTO THE COMMUNITY AFTER NOT MIXING WITH ANOTHER HUMAN EXCEPT GUARDS IN RIOT EQUIPMENT.
    IT CAN BREAK YOU OR MAKE YOU STRONGER.
    ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE.
    START A STRICT ROUTINE & STICK TO IT LIKE CLOCKWORK EVERYDAY.
    PHYSICAL EXERCISE. EDUCATION. LETTER WRITING.IN UK YOU CAN HAVE A RADIO AFTER 6 MTHS OR SO, THAT HELPED ALOT, GAVE ME A CONNECTION TO THE OUTSIDE.IN UK YOU ARE ENTITLED TO A DAILY SHOWER, PHONECALL, 1 HOUR EXERCISE OUTSIDE ON YOUR OWN.YOU ALSO SEE A DR ONCE A DAY.
    I SPENT NEARLY 5YRS IN SOLITARY ALL IN & IT MADE ME A MUCH STRONGER GUY, PHYSICALLY & MENTALLY. YOU JUST HAVE TO SHUT OF THE OUTSIDE WORLD, ACCEPT THE SITUATION YOU PUT YOURSELF IN & MAKE THE MOST OF IT LOL. ONCE YOU ACCEPT YOUR SITUATION & DON’T JUST THINK ABOUT GETTING OUT EVERY WAKING HOUR IT GETS ALOT EASIER. IN FACT I USED TO ALWAYS HAVE A SMILE ON MY FACE, ALWAYS HAPPY, POLITE & UPBEAT & ACTUALLY USED TO TELL THE GUARDS I ACTUALLY PREFERRED TO BE ON MY OWN! ( BIT OF REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY) IT SOMETIMES GOT ME BACK TO THE MAIN PRISON QUICKER BECAUSE THEY SAW IT DIDN’T HAVE THE DESIRED EFFECT ON ME.
    ALSO & THIS IS THE HARDEST THING. YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT YOU CANNOT HELP YOUR LOVED ONES ON THE OUTSIDE, THEY WILL HAVE TO FEND FOR THEMSELVES JUST AS YOU HAVE. POWERLESSNESS. IT’S HARD TO OVERCOME BUT OVERCOME IT YOU MUST.

  • ENGLISH EX CON says:

    YEAH AFTER ALL THE HUSTLE & BUSTLE OF THE WING IT’S NICE TO GET A BIT OF PEACE & QUIET LOL. AS LONG AS YOU AINT GOT PEOPLE TALKING FROM THEIR WINDOWS ALL NIGHT.

  • ENGLISH EX CON says:

    YEAH AFTER ALL THE HUSTLE & BUSTLE OF THE WING IT’S NICE TO GET A BIT OF PEACE & QUIET LOL. AS LONG AS YOU AINT GOT PEOPLE TALKING FROM THEIR WINDOWS ALL NIGHT.

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