Solitary Confinement May Dramatically Alter Brain Shape In Just Days, Neuroscientist Says

A solitary cell at Angola prison in the early 1970s

A solitary cell at Angola prison in the early 1970s

From Think Progress

Solitary confinement has been called a “living death,” cruel and unusual, and torture. Studies of the prison practice of placing inmates in a solitary, often concrete windowless cell for 23 hours a day with almost no human contact, have found that the psychological impact is dramatic after just a few days.

A University of Michigan neuroscientist suggested Friday that the physical impact on the brain could be just as significant if not moreso, and could “dramatically change the brain” in just a matter of days. Speaking on a panel about solitary confinement, neuroscientist Huda Akil said inaccess to inmates has prevented much formal study on brain changes while held in confinement. But she said a number of other studies have documented how each of the factors involved in solitary confinement change the physical shape of the brain. The lack of physical interaction with the natural world, the lack of social interaction, and the lack of touch and visual stimulation alone are each “by itself is sufficient to dramatically change the brain,” Akil said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

She said particular parts of the brain that are subject to extreme stress can “actually shrink,” including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, spatial orientation, and control of emotions.

Robert King, a member of the “Angola 3″ who was held in solitary confinement for years before his conviction was overturned in a racially charged murder case based on flimsy evidence, said his eyesight and physical orientation are permanently impaired. “My geography is way off,” he said. “I get lost sometimes in my own neighborhood. I believe that this is a result of my solitary confinement.” Two of King’s fellow defendants remained in solitary, one until just days before his death in October.

Other psychological impacts documented by psychology professor Craig Haney include “extreme paranoia, self-mutilation, hypersensitivity to sound, light and touch, and severe cognition dysfunction among prisoners.”

One recent psychological study concluded, “The restriction of environmental stimulation and social isolation associated with confinement in solitary are strikingly toxic to mental functioning.” And prisoners, many of whom are later released, have described developing rage and violent tendencies while confined.

“To me, the separation of the mental and physical is highly artificial, because there are definitely physical consequences of these experiences,” said Akil.

The prolonged, isolated confinement of inmates has been held unconstitutional as applied to the mentally ill, and at least two courts have now held that indefinite, unreviewed confinement is also unconstitutional. But the practice remains common, and has not been invalidated outright. At least 80,000 U.S. prisoners are held in solitary confinement by some estimates, and it is frequently used not to segregate dangerous prisoners, but as a means of social control, or mental health treatment. In California, more than 500 inmates have reportedly been kept in confinement for 10 to 28 years.