‘Why I think solitary confinement is torture’

An isolated incident: The semi-fictional Piper Chapman in solitary in Orange is the New Black.
by Jordan Gaines Lewis

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science communicator who has written for publications as diverse as the Guardian, Slate and Scientific American. She is studying for a PhD in neuroscience.

Humans are social animals, says Jordan Gaines, hard-wired for friendship, social interaction and love. Isolating them from human contact is a particularly cruel, destructive form of torture.

The inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary, the fictional setting for the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, are not shy women.

They’ve landed in prison for murder, fraud, stalking, drug-smuggling, theft, and political activism. They do illegal activities behind the officers’ backs. They make their opinions known loud and clear to one another. And they’re not opposed to throwing a few punches, if duty calls.

But all will cease if you threaten to send them to the SHU. Why?

“The cramped, concrete cells, often just 6 × 10 feet, are constantly illuminated by fluorescent light”

The SHU (pronounced ‘shoe’), or ‘security housing unit’, is a separate prison facility designed to isolate inmates from any human contact. While sometimes used to protect the prisoner from harm by others or to themselves (to implement suicide watch, for example), it’s often used as punishment for violating prison regulations. At last count, it’s been estimated that more than 80,000 prisoners in the US are housed in the SHU – more than any other democratic country. And while inmates in minimum security may be held in the SHU for a few days at most, those in maximum security prisons can be in solitary for as long as five years.

The cramped, concrete cells, often just 6 × 10 feet, are constantly illuminated by fluorescent light and contain a bed, sink, toilet, and not much else. Except for prison guards, inmates are intentionally deprived of other people and stimuli, including television, radio, and perhaps no more than a few books. ‘The only thing left to do is go crazy — just sit and talk to the walls’, a juvenile detainee in Florida said when describing their time in the SHU. ‘Sometimes I feel like, why am I even living?’

Humans are social animals. We feel safer and happier in the company of others, seek friends and family for company and solace, and desire acceptance, friendship and love. Our neocortex, the outermost layer of our brain, is comparatively larger than that of other primates and implicated in conscious thought, language, emotional regulation, empathy and higher social cognition.

So it’s no wonder that psychologists and human rights advocates consider solitary confinement one of the worst possible forms of psychological torture. In simple terms, the SHU ‘destroys people as human beings’, according to psychologist Terry Kupers.

Reviews of the literature published in the past decade associate prisoner isolation with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, anger and hostility, poor memory and disorientation, and self-harm. With so much time spent alone, individuals become prone to hallucinations – particularly seeing people or hearing voices that aren’t there – paranoid thoughts and distorted sensations, such as perceiving the walls closing in on them.

Of course, these mental health problems are often exacerbated by the fact that mentally ill patients are more likely to end up in the SHU in the first place. There is also evidence suggesting that solitary confinement results in increased recidivism. It’s estimated that 24.2% of prisoners in solitary are later re-convicted of a violent crime compared to 20.5% of general population prisoners.

At the end of Orange is the New Black season three, we see a major character being led to the SHU by three guards, where she’ll stay for an indeterminate amount of time ‘for her own protection’. We haven’t yet come to know any characters who have spent long periods of time in solitary, but if what we know about solitary comes to play out, we may see some unpleasant after-effects when season four premieres next year.

You Decide

  1. Should the practice of isolating prisoners from human contact be abolished?


  1. Imagine you were the last human left on Earth. What would you do? What sorts of activity would still be meaningful? Write a diary entry explaining your emotions and your daily routine.

Word Watch

Orange is the New Black
This television series is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, a middle-class woman who spent 13 months behind bars for drug trafficking. The series is a fairly realistic account of life and relationships inside a women’s prison.
The part of the brain that is thought to be responsible for almost all of our most complex mental processes: abstract reasoning, consciousness, muscle control, language, empathy. In most animals it is fairly small, but in humans it accounts for 76% of the brain’s mass.
Solitary confinement
Although there’s no single agreed-upon definition of solitary confinement, it is seen as any regime where prisoners are held alone in small cells for at least 22 hours a day, often under constant video surveillance.
Offending again after receiving punishment for a crime. Several factors may contribute to the higher rates of recidivism among people who have been in solitary confinement: it may be that the kinds of people who are put in solitary are more likely to reoffend, or that the experience affects them in damaging ways.