Solitary Confinement: A Cruel Punishment for the Brain

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A young girl in stripey pyjamas having some time out.

On September 11, 2011, two American hikers were released from an Iranian prison after being kept there for two years. The hikers, along with their friend, Sarah Shourd, were hiking along the border between Iraq and Iran. After a soldier signaled them to talk to them, they were arrested and eventually put in prison under the charges of being American spies. The trio was held in the Evin Prison, where solitary confinement is normal, and even an hour of fresh air—hava khori—is rare.

The Lonely Prisoner

After being released by the Iranian government after hard diplomacy negotiations, the trio of Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Shourd described their experience in solitary confinement:

“Solitary confinement is the slow erasure of who you thought you were. You think you are still you, but you have no real way of knowing. How can you know if you have no one to reflect you back to yourself? Would I know if I was going crazy? The longer I am alone, the more my mind slows. All I want to do is to forget about everything.

But I can’t do it. I am unable to keep my mind from being sharply focused on one task: forcing myself not to look at the wall behind me. I know that eventually, a tiny sliver of sunlight will spill in through the grated window and place a quarter-size dot on the wall. It’s ridiculous that I’m thinking about it this early. I’ve been awake only 10 minutes and I should know it will be hours before it appears.

They take everything from us—breezes, eye contact, human touch, the feeling of warm wet hands from washing a sink-load of dishes, the miracle of transforming thoughts into words on paper. They leave only the pause—those moments of waiting at bus stops, of cigarette breaks. They make time the object of our hatred.”

A Cruel Punishment for the Brain

The cell designed for Bauer cuts out any sensory stimulation that the brain can gather. Without any stimulus entering his senses, Bauer starts to lose his mind. Why? Because in the absence of sensory stimulus, the brain starts to create its own stimulus and the mind starts to confront life-changing experiences.

After some time—months—in solitary confinement, Bauer and Fattal get to share a cell. The human brain needs sensory stimulus, but more than anything, it needs social interaction. We, as a species, evolved in groups, not by ourselves. Our brains are social, wired to interact with other humans. Moreover, the brain can be altered under solitary confinement, causing harm to neural development. There is no greater proof of this than when Bauer describes his experience after finding out that Fattal was sharing the cell with him from now on:

“Now, in a cell together, Josh and I come back to life. After five months of isolation, the possibility of conversation on any topic for any length of time is overwhelming. We talk about The Idiot to an absurd extent, reading passages at random to discuss them as though they were Scripture. Josh gives me a lesson on the musical career of Bob Dylan and I school him on the Balkan Wars. Since we aren’t allowed pens, I draw an invisible map with my finger on the wall.”

The social interaction stops the degradation of the mind that both prisoners were experiencing back in solitary confinement. But, for Shourd, the only female in the group and the only one to stay in solitary confinement for the rest of the year, the story is different:

“When I’m with Shane and Josh in hava khori, I almost feel worse. Every touch reminds me of the absence of touch. Their situation seems heavenly to me—they’re out of solitary! What could be better than sharing a leisurely game of chess, listening to endless stories about each other’s lives, being able to connect without the fear of interference? They are halfway there, halfway to sanity and normalcy, halfway to freedom! I want to feel happy for them, but I don’t know how much longer I can hold it together alone in this cell.”

And, when Shourd gets desperate, her behavior turns suicidal without any remorse about dying:

“Suddenly I’m on my feet, running to the door. I start banging on it with my fists, kicking it again and again. The guard opens the door and I stare at her, breathless and angry, my hands balled into fists.

I want hava khori,’ I demand, my voice trembling, my face locked.

No, Sarah!‘ she yells. ‘No hava khori today!’ I hear the door slam. I hear her footsteps running down the hall. I don’t hear anything else. I want to die. I want to disappear. I want to kill.”

Lasting Effects

This story is one of the many reminders of how solitary confinement is a cruel and unethical form of punishment, especially to the brain. Many people would say that they prefer it over the death penalty, but the reality is that solitary confinement keeps you alive while slowly destroying your reality and sanity. The sheer sensory deprivation could have lasting effects on the prisoner’s life. And, when you count that most of the prisoners in solitary confinement will eventually get out, you get the feeling that they’re not entering free life as the same person they were before.

The brain is not hardwired or fixed, instead, it changes constantly. As Oliver Sacks explains, the brain has endless adaptability. That’s good news for many people who don’t get proper education or development in their early years, but in the case of solitary confinement, the neuroplasticity of the brain can have life-changing consequences on people’s futures.

David Eagleman, a professor at Standford Universtiy, once talked to Robert Luke, a surviving inmate of the notorious Alcatraz prison. In Luke’s description, he noted that many “dudes” were banging their heads against the wall after a couple of days on solitary confinement. As Eagleman describes, “Luke’s eyes and ears were starved of input… But his mind didn’t abandon the notion of an outside world. It just continued to make one up.”

Last Word on Solitary Confinement

Recently, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, and activists have been fighting the inhuman punishment that is solitary confinement. As was reported by Dana G. Smith at the Scientific American, Robert King (solitary confinement survivor), Huda Akil (neuroscientist), Stephanie Cacioppo (psychiatrist) and Jules Lobel (lawyer) headed a panel on the Annual Society of Neuroscience about solitary confinement. King was part of a group known as the Angola Three—former inmates at a prison in Louisiana—who were socially isolated in cells after being falsely targeted for being associated with the Black Panther movement. King was held for at least 27 years, experiencing life-altering damage to his brain. He’s now delivering speeches on how solitary confinement turned his life for the worse.

As many researchers have noted, solitary confinement can reduce sensory and motor neurons by 20 percent. Moreover, memory, which is dependent on brain structures like the hippocampus—a seahorse-like brain structure related to learning and memory—ends up damaged from solitary confinement. Smith, the author of the Scientific American article, even says that King was unable to recognize faces for some time. Akil, the University of Michigan neuroscientist on the panel, further explained that social deprivation also leads to dysregulation of the circadian rhythm, which is a cycle that regulates feelings and sleepiness in 24-hour periods.

Due to the many detrimental and lasting effects such as these, the main hope of the members of this panel was to spread awareness about the over 80,000 people who have to endure solitary confinement in America. Neuroscience could be the key to demonstrating the life-altering damage that solitary confinement inflicts upon people who, eventually, will rejoin our communities.

For more about the brain, check out LWOS life: Science and Technology.

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