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Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

By Erica Goode | The New York Times | August 3, 2015

In 1993, Craig Haney, a social psychologist, interviewed a group of inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s toughest penal institution.

He was studying the psychological effects of isolation on prisoners, and Pelican Bay was among the first of a new breed of super-maximum-security prisons that states around the country were beginning to build.

Twenty years later, he returned to the prison for another set of interviews. He was startled to find himself facing some of the same prisoners he had met before, inmates who now had spent more than two decades alone in windowless cells.

“It was shocking, frankly,” Dr. Haney said.

Few social scientists question that isolation can have harmful effects. Research over the last half-century has demonstrated that it can worsen mental illness and produce symptoms even in prisoners who start out psychologically robust.

But most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”

Sealed for years in a hermetic environment — one inmate likened the prison’s solitary confinement unit to “a weapons lab or a place for human experiments” — prisoners recounted struggling daily to maintain their sanity. They spoke of longing to catch sight of a tree or a bird. Many responded to their isolation by shutting down their emotions and withdrawing even further, shunning even the meager human conversation and company they were afforded.

“If you put a parakeet in a cage for years and you take it out, it will die,” one older prisoner said. “So I stay in my cage.”

In recent weeks, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, a practice that has been widespread in the United States, has received unprecedented levels of attention.

President Obama, who last month became the first president to visit a federal prison, questioned whether “we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time.”

And in a Supreme Court ruling in June, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing about solitary confinement, noted that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”

In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit in federal court against state officials on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates who had spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement, claiming that their prolonged isolation violated their Eighth Amendment rights. The parties are now in settlement negotiations, said Jules Lobel, the president of the center and a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who is the lead lawyer for the case.

Dr. Haney and several other expert witnesses retained by the plaintiffs’ lawyers prepared reports in the case, copies of which were obtained by The New York Times.

Dr. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.

The inmates landed in prison following convictions for serious, often violent crimes. Paul Redd, 58, murdered a competing drug dealer; Gabriel Reyes, 49, was found guilty of burglary and sentenced under California’s three-strikes law. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Todd Ashker, 52, was convicted of second-degree murder, burglary, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a deadly weapon.

But most were placed in the isolation unit not because of their original crimes but because they were deemed to be gang members or gang associates, under California’s policy at the time. The state corrections department said that such long-term confinement was necessary because of gang killings in the prisons and attacks on staff members and other inmates.

Prison administrators say there are some inmates so violent or unmanageable they must be kept apart from other people. But consigning inmates to solitary for years — or even decades, as California has done — is viewed by an increasing number of top corrections officials around the country as unnecessary and ineffective, and some human rights groups have called it torture.

Many of the inmates Dr. Haney interviewed talked wistfully about mothers, wives and children they had neither touched nor spoken to for years — prisoners in the isolation unit were not allowed personal phone calls and were prohibited from physical contact during visits. Some had not had a single visitor during their years in solitary.

“I got a 15-minute phone call when my father died,” said one inmate who had been isolated for 24 years. “I realized I have family I don’t really know anymore, or even their voices.”

Another prisoner described placing photographs of his family facing the television in his cell and talking to them while he watched.

“Maybe I’m crazy, but it makes me feel like I’m with them,” he told Dr. Haney. “Maybe someday I’ll get to hug them.”

Some prisoners became so disoriented they began to question their own existence.

Another inmate said that the hour or so he had spent in the interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, citing the continuing litigation, declined to comment on the lawsuit or on the reports of Dr. Haney or other expert witnesses for the plaintiffs. But since the lawsuit was filed, the department has moved many inmates who had been in isolation at Pelican Bay for more than a decade to other settings. All but two of the 10 inmates originally named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now in other facilities, according to Jeffrey Callison, a department spokesman.

In an interview, Dr. Haney said that he was especially struck by the profound sadness that many of the inmates he interviewed seemed to carry with them.

“The weight of what they had been through was apparent on them and in them,” he said.

“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.”

Read the rest of the article, originally published in The New York Times, here.