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Overuse of Solitary Confinement Has Devastating Psychological Effects

In 1841, Charles Dickens toured the United States. One of the places he visited was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which is regarded as the first modern penitentiary.


Eastern State was regarded as a “rational, humane replacement” for earlier prisons. Inmates were housed separately in relatively comfortable accommodations for the time. The expectation was that the solitude would produce reflection, which in turn, would produce repentance and rehabilitation.


Dickens was not impressed. He believed that the isolation’s “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain . . . [was] immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”


Experience and science have confirmed Dickens’ misgivings. Yet, a census of state and federal prisons conducted in 2005 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found nearly 82,000 inmates were held in “restricted housing.”


Now it’s true, as Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske wrote in the Huffington Post, “sometimes there are no viable alternatives [to solitary confinement] to keep prisoners from harming themselves or others.”


But as Justice Fellowship President Craig DeRoche testified before Congress, the large majority of men placed in solitary confinement are being punished for “minor rule infractions” such as “being out of place, failing to report to an assignment, and refusing an order.”


The over-reliance on solitary confinement is especially troubling when you consider the effects of isolation on the psychological well-being of inmates. Citing findings in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Aeon Magazine described the effects of keeping men in their cells 23 hours a day without human contact.


The effects included “stupor, delirium, hallucination, and a loss of ‘perceptual constancy’—the ability to recognize the sameness of things when viewed from different distances and angles.” Half of the men studied “hallucinated constantly . . . [and] heard whispers and muttered sounds, which took on menacing meanings.”


What’s more, the 82,000 prisoners mentioned earlier do not include those held in local jails or juvenile detention facilities. Recently, New York State announced that teenagers would no longer be allowed to serve time in solitary. This was in the wake of a PBS report that 27 percent of the teenagers in a New York jail were being held in solitary confinement.


Given what we know about the plasticity of the adolescent brain and the fact that none of the teenagers involved had actually been convicted of anything yet, DeRoche is right when he describes our reliance on solitary as “troubling.”


The good news, if there is any, is that, as Liske put it, “the use of isolation is reaching a tipping point.” For instance, Colorado has scaled back its use of the practice not only because extended isolation is inhumane but also because it is counterproductive.


After all, most prisoners being held in solitary will be released one day. Sending them back to their communities more damaged than when they left benefits no one.


The inmates Dickens saw in Philadelphia were given Bibles to foster their rehabilitation. That’s still a great idea, of course. It would also behoove us as a society to read those Bibles ourselves and remember that we will be judged on the basis of how we treat those in prison, whom Jesus called “my brothers.”


For more information on the overuse of solitary confinement and what Justice Fellowship is doing about it, please visit JusticeFellowship.org.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: March 21, 2014

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