Criminal Justice

Long-term solitary confinement produces 'social death,' psychologist finds

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A psychologist who studied inmates held in solitary confinement for most of their adult lives says the men have undergone a “social death” as a result of the experience.

The New York Times obtained reports prepared by the psychologist, Craig Haney, for a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in long-term solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. The prisoners Haney interviewed had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary; most were placed there because of gang affiliations.

The inmates told of a daily struggle to stay sane. Some even questioned their own existence. Some tried to shut down their emotions and withdrew. Their cells have no windows; guards communicate by intercom.

Sixty-three percent of the men in solitary said they felt close to an “impending breakdown,” compared to 4 percent of 25 inmates Haney interviewed who were not in solitary. Those 25 inmates were housed in a maximum security wing.

Seventy-three percent of the men in solitary said they were chronically depressed and 78 percent said they were emotionally flat, compared to 48 percent and 36 percent of the other inmates.

One inmate in solitary said the hour he spent in an interview was the most he had talked in years. One said he put photos of family members facing the television in his cell so he could talk to them while he watched.

Haney told the Times that many of the inmates in solitary seemed to have a profound sadness. “They were grieving for their lost lives, for their loss of connectedness to the social world and their families outside, and also for their lost selves,” he said. “Most of them really did understand that they had lost who they were, and weren’t sure of who they had become.”

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