Neuroscientists Make a Case Against Solitary Confinement

Prolonged social isolation and sensory deprivation leads to severe, long-lasting damage to the brain.

Living in a six by nine by 12–foot cell for 23 hours a day there are an estimated 80,000 people in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, with almost no human contact. This isolation and sensory deprivation has traumatic effects on the brain.

Nearly a quarter of prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement spend over a year there. More than 15 days is considered torture by the UN and International standards. The prolonged social isolation leads to severe physical, emotional and cognitive injury.

It is associated with a 26 percent increased risk of premature death. Social isolation causes memory loss, cognitive decline and depression. When sensory deprivation is introduced as it is in solitary confinement, people can experience psychosis and disruptions in the genes that control the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Many of these consequences may be irreversible.



Photo: “Solitary Confinement” by Corrie Barklimore is licensed under CC BY 2.0