This week I have encountered the gripping piece in Aeon Magazine first published as “Twilight in the Box” and re-printed in part in the current The Week as “”Going Crazy in Solitary.”
From what I’ve witnessed inside, solitary confinement increases the agitation, anxiety and antisocial tendencies of the functionally impaired who have been moved to isolation as a form of ‘managing’ them. Here, in print, is proof of what I have observed. It’s not only beyond harshly punitive – perhaps even beyond humane – but in fact rewires inmates’ brains. In other words, prolonged isolation makes them worse, even when they weren’t ‘mentally ill’ to begin with.
Shruti Ravindran, who authored the piece, writes:
“Prison authorities in every state are running a massive uncontrolled experiment … And every day, the products of these trials trickle out on to the streets, with their prospects of rehabilitation professionally, socially, even physiologically diminished. The Box, as psychologists and psychiatrists have been saying for decades, damages the mind. But evidence from neuroscience increasingly suggests that it is irrevocably harming the brain, too.
…In the public imagination, these sentences are handed to ruthless mass-murderers on death row, not .. the perpetrators of the kinds of offences enumerated in inmate misbehaviour reports: collecting too many stamps; possessing ‘contraband’ such as phone cards or nail varnish, or condiments such as pepper or curry powder; refusing to return a food tray; declining to submit to a urine analysis test; spitting on a correctional officer; erecting a makeshift ‘privacy curtain’ in order to perform ablutions out of a bunkmate’s sight; inflicting self-harm.
… As years passed, an irrefutable body of work in a range of species established that social interactions across complex terrain could nourish and boost the brain, while impoverished surroundings diminished it in every stage of life … Recent findings suggest that chronic stress can lay down intransigent memories as well – especially those associated with aggression, violence or fear.
Isolation puts prisoners at risk of anxiety, panic, chronic depression, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations, self-mutilation
Meanwhile, every year, thousands of inmates leave solitary cells to join the ranks of parolees outside prison, their minds altered by an experience so fraught with risk that scientists require special dispensation to do it to animals.”
It is beyond time to bring antiquated prison practices up to modern understanding of brain science. Otherwise we are all hamsters spinning ourselves into an endless loop of hopelessness and expense, creating problems more insurmountable than those we started with.
4 thoughts on “‘going crazy in solitary’”
I agree Sarah, time out for violent behavior for the safety of others is necessary. Thirty days locked in a box is inhumanely punitive. When the only human contact an inmate gets is reaction to their continued acts of vandalism or self violence, common sense says a dangerous association between attention and self develops. We need to separate safety from punitive response.
Thanks for your comments, Janelle. It just staggers the mind to consider how completely the practice of extended isolation in prison is torture; how dramatically it alters function; and yet is not at the forefront of any domestic discussion. Significant change in the system is something I work toward and dearly hope to see in my lifetime.
A TED talk I saw recently that speaks to this subject. https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_reisel_the_neuroscience_of_restorative_justice/transcript
Thank you for the link. Janelle. So timely and interesting!! I am intrigued by this concept of restorative justice – but add in the neuroscience and what I feel is a resounding YES!